Three weeks work – that was what I was offered in 1969 – three weeks work on a Pearson Holiday detection survey of the 750 mm Longford to Dandenong Gas Pipeline recently completed by Saipem for the Gas & Fuel Corporation.
The Gas & Fuel Corporation’s Corrosion Mitigation department, in the days when George Lewis ran the department, carried out the Pearson Holiday detection survey. It was also when I first met Dave Martin, who was to continue to work in the pipeline industry both here and overseas, but tragically succumbed to cancer late in 2011.
That three weeks work was the start of my pipeline career that has lasted over 40 years, although in different areas of the pipeline industry.
Following that three weeks work, I was employed as a coating inspector and sent out to work on a pipeline. My training and safety induction course consisted of instructions to take the pipeline specifications, go behind a side-boom, keep out of sight, read up the coating specifications and when I came back twenty minutes later I was a fully-fledged pipeline coating inspector.
They were the early days of pipelining in Australia and many a corner was cut; yet the job got done and done well.
Safety was not the huge industry it is today but I will always be grateful to the good old boys: the plant operators, labourers, foremen etc who were always quick to point out to me where danger lay. They would very quickly and very loudly let me know if I should unthinkingly enter areas of danger.
This “˜good old boys’ system worked very well, in the many years spent on pipeline spreads I did not see a serious injury much less a fatality. However, from my very first cross-country pipeline and many after, I continued to see good men die in car accidents mainly off the spread. I also saw many close shaves in the hydrostatic testing area in which I was involved. It was pleasing therefore to see these two areas were highlighted in safety surveys, and also pleasing to see the huge effort that goes into safety in these areas.
After working on many small projects including cathodic protection installation, valve repair, emergency supply of gas to areas during gas conversion and small hydrostatic testing jobs, my first major pipeline was the WAG Pipeline in 1972 where I was employed as a coating inspector and had the pleasure to get to know Tom Hoffman, or “˜Scratch’ as he was known to all his men.
I also had the pleasure to work for Bennie Beattie, a senior pipeline inspector brought out from America by Pipeline Technologists, as it was considered there were not enough Australians qualified to be senior inspectors. Bernie Newcomb was 2IC to Tom and Dick Findlay was the welding foreman. Dick was one of those good men to be killed in a car accident on a later pipeline job in NSW.
The American brass from Pipe Tech who inspected the project prior to the start of the job were a bit taken back with the age of Eric Newham’s equipment and commented that they would be lucky to get it out of the yard let alone build a pipeline. Americans of course generally put brand new “˜iron’ on each pipeline job so Newham’s ageing equipment was a bit of a shock.
However, when the pipeline was completed, the same Americans were quick to congratulate Tom on having done a superb job of laying his section through a very difficult built-up section from Moorabbin to St Kilda.
The WAG Pipeline was also the kindergarten of a number of pipeliners who went on to make the mark in the pipeline construction industry. Brothers Rod and Brian Davis, and two Irish brothers, including one named Bernie, also started on the WAG Pipeline and went on to work on many pipelines, before eventually going back to Ireland where Bernie was tragically killed on a construction job.
Chris Savos and Nugget Bennet were the coal tar enamel joint wrappers: they used the “˜Granny Rag’ method in those days, which involved one wrapper standing on top of the pipe and pouring hot molten coal tar onto the joint while the other used wrapping paper to coat the joint by working the hot enamel around the joint with the paper. The wrapping paper was a bitumen-type material reinforced with asbestos fibre. Sometimes Chris and Nugget would disappear into the smoke and steam produced by the hot enamel. The wrappers wore no protective gear except sometimes a mask claiming the sulphurous fumes were good for coughs and colds.
One day, some hot enamel splashed onto Nugget’s upper lip: he hardly missed a beat. The next day he had this very burnt, swollen lip covered with what turned out to be dripping fat left over from cooking. A huge scab resulted and about seven or eight days later Nugget ripped it off to expose a beautifully healed lip. Nugget at that stage was a man in his sixties.
An interesting project followed when I joined the Gas & Fuel hydrostatic team headed by Graham Downie, with Ian Hardy as his offsider. Phil Barker also worked on this project. Vito Martinelli was in charge of the pumps supplied by Saipem, the main contractor for the construction of this gas pipeline system from Melbourne to Ballarat and Bendigo. We hydro-tested the entire pipeline in many sections; it was an extremely interesting project.
One safety incident happened when a pig was stuck and the contractor wanted, against all good advice, to open up the pig trap with the pipeline, containing a mixture of air and water, under pressure. The side-boom was lowered to stop the pig trap door swinging off its hinges, the pig trap door bolts were loosened, then a skid was used to bash it open. All went to plan, except when the door hit the top of the lowered side-boom, and at a million miles per hour a bolt sheared off flew off at high speed and hit the contractor right between the eyes. One inch either way and it was goodbye eye. I am sure that sort of thing would not happen today under the present safety regime, but that was 1972.
On the same project we wanted to take water from a channel supplying the drinking water for Bendigo. The water authority would not let us take water directly from the channel – we were required to first pipe the water into a rainwater tank and pump from it. We accepted this, as we understood they did not want to contaminate the town’s drinking supply. We were therefore surprised when we saw the water warden’s big Labrador jump into the channel for a swim. And after enquiring what the angled gate we were using to raise the water level was usually used for, we were told that it was for removing dead kangaroos and other animals washed down the channel after bushfires.
Many Gas & Fuel projects followed where I was privileged to work with many Gas & Fuel engineers of the time, including Vin Pollock, Mark Bumpstead, Peter Wheelwright and Brian Webb. Gas & Fuel Construction Supervisor Bob Fraser and Office Manager John Barr were fantastic people.
In 1976, I also had the pleasure of working with Peter Norman on a five-pipeline system from Brooklyn to Altona. At that time, Peter was a Gas & Fuel pipeline surveyor. Peter Rees, one of nature’s gentlemen, was another I worked with on many pipeline jobs. Peter, who was a keen bushwalker, was a hard man to keep up with around the Gippsland hills. We hydro-tested all the 762 mm gas looping constructed in the 1980s.
John Lott, who I first met on a 762 mm pipeline Newham’s built in Dandenong, went on to work on pipelines around Australia, and was recently Project Manager for a very big job in Western Australia. It was 1985 when Gas & Fuel built the Wandong to Kyneton Pipeline and this was to be the last pipeline to be built by the Gas & Fuel Corporation for some time – therefore no more work for Barry. I had offers to work overseas, but by this time I had a family of six children, so my wife Esther was not going to be too pleased with me being overseas 3-6 months at a time.
It was at this time I decided to work full time on publishing my newsletter Pipeline, Plant & Offshore (PPO), a project I had started in September 1972 and which I continued on a part-time basis until 1985. I managed to talk my wife Esther into going back to teaching to bring some money in as I didn’t expect to bring in enough money to support a family of eight. I thought it would involve Esther doing a couple of years work, however, after 27 years she is still at it and loving her job, having worked her way up to Principal of a Melbourne primary school.
In 1989, I was successful in gaining the contract to publish and distribute The Australian Pipeliner for the APIA. It was the turning point for my business as after a few years, building it up, it turned into a profitable exercise. It was in 1992 that I brought out the first edition of the APIA Directory. It was left to my discretion as to the form it took, apart from a few minor specifications set by the APIA Committee of the time. However, I was not short of encouragement from that same committee and from other senior members of the Association. In the end I must have done something right, as the Committee was especially pleased with the result and so were the members and the directory, although much larger with so many more members, is still produced pretty much in its original format. There were so many from APIA that helped me during these times, but it is people like Jim McDonald, Bruce Andrews, Charles Rottier, Kay Turnbull and Bob Gration that immediately come to mind. They not only gave me good advice but I also knew they were barracking for me.
The next important publication that I took on was the Indonesian Pipeline Industry Association’s (IPIA) magazine, which was known as the Indonesian Pipeliner. Keith Potter, Grant Bowley, John Balint and myself to a lesser extent were instrumental in getting the IPIA underway. Not long after its establishment I had a call from Keith Potter, who was based in Jakarta, with a query about publishing IPIA’s proposed magazine. I sealed the deal when I told Keith I would not charge to produce its magazine; we would run it as our own business taking the risks and the rewards as we did for APIA.
Unfortunately the Asian financial crisis brought an end to that venture, although we did publish the magazine for about three years. I still remember sitting in Tranoco’s boardroom, as the IPIA committee met and the topic of the Indonesian Pipeliner would be raised. Keith would go around the table and ask each one how much advertising they were taking and from each one Keith would get an order for four full colour pages of advertisements. You can’t get a better ad salesman than that.
By 2001, I was worn out with deadline after deadline; but had had enough such that I couldn’t continue in an effective way. My eldest son Stuart stepped in, took over the business and employed Chris Bland and Scott Pearce to run the business and they have taken it from strength-to-strength, although unfortunately Scott recently left the company.
Currently, Chris has a great crew of young people working there and at the last Christmas party we had 50 staff attend. It is so good to see these young people working so cheerfully and so hard to take the business to heights I could not have imagined. I officially resigned from the business in late 2011 after acting as a consultant for 10 years.
I have enjoyed every moment of my work in the Australian pipeline industry and I am very proud to be a part of an industry that has built such a huge pipeline network around Australia. I remember fondly all the people I worked with over my forty years. Pipeliners are wonderful people.