The first echelons of a small army of skilled construction workers have started work on a $3.6 billion expansion of the Wood River Refinery. Many of the 1,500 to 2,500 workers needed for the project will be area residents, but others will come from around the country. They have begun to move into homes, hotels, motels, apartments and mobile home and RV parks.
The project is one of the biggest construction jobs in the history of the St. Louis region in terms of cost and number of workers. It is being undertaken by WRB Refining LLC, which owns the refinery. WRB Refining is a joint venture of ConocoPhillips and EnCana Corp. The work will take about three years.
Work began in September, and there have been layoffs because of anticipated slowdowns, said Melissa Erker, a spokeswoman for the refinery. However, construction activity and the work force are both expected to increase rapidly in early 2009, she added,
Some of the construction workers will be employed by WRB and others by contractors and subcontractors. Fluor Corp. of Irving, Texas, and Bechtel Power Corp. of San Francisco are the major contractors.
There are not enough workers here with some of the skills required, so some will come from elsewhere as what are known in union parlance as "travelers."
Craig Causer, 32, an electrician from the Paducah, Ky., area was laid off from the project recently but is optimistic that he'll get rehired early next year.
"I've worked coast to coast," Causer said. "You see the country and you get paid for it."
Causer's wife, Rae, 33, said, "We've been doing it for 3 1/2 years. I wouldn't have it any other way. You meet different people and you see different things."
The couple have a "fifth-wheel" recreational vehicle parked in the Nevels Mobile Home Park in Bethalto.
"I really like this area," Rae Causer said. "I'd like to stay here for a while." She hopes to land a clerical job with the refinery or one of the contractors.
Last year, the refinery hired retired Roxana schools Superintendent Jim Herndon to coordinate efforts to link out-of-town workers with housing and other amenities. Those efforts include a website, woodriverrefineryexpansion.com, that has information on local communities and housing, schools, churches, restaurants and points of interest.
Monica Bristow, president of the River Bend Growth Association, expects the massive project to provide a welcome boost to the local economy during a difficult time.
"It will be an incredible advantage in keeping people employed not only at ConocoPhillips but at the many other businesses that provide goods and services," she said.
The expansion project includes a new coker unit and will allow the refinery to process heavy crude oil from the oil sands of northeastern Alberta. Oil refining capacity will jump to 356,000 barrels per day, an increase of 50,000 barrels.
Work began after an agreement ended a legal challenge by several environmental organizations to an air permit for the project issued by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.
The agreement calls for emission reductions of 500 tons a year and a cutting edge emission-monitoring system. It also calls for the companies to fund $3.4 million in "green" projects throughout the Metro East.
Gene Driggers of Savannah, Ga., has been an electrician for nearly 29 years and a "traveler" for the past 21. He too is currently out of work but expecting to be rehired early next year. He said he worked on the project for three months.
Driggers said he likes meeting people and experiencing different parts of the country.
He said his first wife "had a house where she wanted to stay." He said his second wife traveled with him for five years before they parted for reasons unrelated to the travel. Driggers, 47, also lives in an RV in Bethalto and has his pickup and a motorcycle to get around.
Driggers helped build Gillette Stadium, home of the NFL's New England Patriots, and enjoyed living in New England. He said he likes the Midwest, too, but said the South will always be home to him.
There aren't enough local electricians for the refinery project, but Kevin Hamilton, business representative of Carpenters Local 377 in Wood River, said there should be plenty of local carpenters. He said the Carpenters District Council has more than 18,000 members in the bistate area, and many of them have been out of work in recent months because of stagnant housing construction.
"I probably have 200 to 250 out there (at the refinery) now," Hamilton said. "This really came at a good time." Hamilton said the project "could be a bridge" to a revitalized housing market.
The expansion is expected to add about 100 permanent jobs to the refinery's current work force of 750 company employees and 200 full-time contract employees.
Copyright (c) 2008, St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.