ABERDEEN, Wash. (AP) Just a few months back, Josh Sumner was commuting from Aberdeen to Tukwila for a job building custom storage sheds. Then, his hours were cut and the economics shifted so that his commute would cost more than his wages.
That’s when he heard about tryouts in Aberdeen to be a part of the Ironworkers Local 86 building the giant floating pontoons for the 520 Bridge. Out of 24 people who tried out for a job last summer, Sumner was one of only six who had the strength and stamina to do the job.
Sumner was sent through a week-long training course and placed in the union’s apprentice program. Today, you can probably find him, feet placed firm against the walls of the interior of a pontoon, hovering some 20 ft. off the ground tying rebar.
He is now one of the 350 craft workers at the Aberdeen pontoon construction project, which has just reached its peak of employment. Of those, roughly half of the workers are from the Grays Harbor area, according to Phil Wallace, the project director of main contractor Kiewit-General.
The 55-acre site on the Chehalis River near Division Street in Aberdeen is bustling with activity day and night now. Huge flood lights can be spotted from blocks away as work continues even into night. Construction on the casting basin is over and work is now moving forward toward building 21 giant longitudinal pontoons, two even taller cross pontoons and 10 smaller stability pontoons with work expected to be complete by sometime in 2014.
Wallace said about 15 percent of all of the workers on site are part of the entry-level apprentice program, geared toward previously unemployed workers looking for a new skill set. The ironworkers average a bit more than that ratio with 40 apprentices out of the 120 ironworkers. Of those, 10 apprentices are from the local area and several other ironworkers lived here prior to the job starting, said Steve Pendergrass, the Business Manager for Ironworkers Local 86. Most of the ironworkers are from the Puget Sound area, where the bulk of the union members live.
Starting wage for an ironworker apprentice is $24 per hour with a guaranteed pay raise every six months as they complete work hours and training hours and go to school one month a year,” Pendergrass said.
“This is pretty good compensation compared to floating out there in the whole world,” Pendergrass added.
After serving five years in the Marines, Sumner said the hard work is worth the pay check. He started at the pontoon consruction project in September and hopes to stay on for the next year or so.
“When this job ends, their career doesn’t end,” Pendergrass said. “We’re training them to be lifelong ironworkers and he’s working for Pacific Coast Steel right now. But there are several other projects in Tacoma and other locations he could go. When this job is done, he may be dispatched to do a fiberglass walkway for the 520 Bridge.”
“Before, I was barely hanging on,” he said. “Now, I’m making decent money and would like to get into a house, if I can.”
Hanging high, his co-workers have already taken to just shouting “Marine!” to get his attention and give him instructions. The job is monotonous, but requires a meticulous hand to make sure rebar is tied right and nothing is missed. The job’s important because the rebar is the first step before concrete is poured to form a wall for the pontoons.
Fellow apprentice Mike Simms is doing the same job at one of the other pontoons under construction at the site.
Simms worked for Hoquiam Plywood off and on for eight years before the mill laid him off again last year.
“Many of my friends from the mill are still unemployed right now,” Simms said.
“This is the hardest, physically demanding job I’ve ever had,” he added. “Yeah, it’s worth it. I like the hard work. It’s fun. I love the guys I work with.”
Hanging from the wall, he’s asked if he ever looks down. He simply grins and looks down.
Simms said after climbing dozens of columns, tying rebar and carrying hefty boxes of wire back and forth, he’s lost 60 pounds in just three months he’s been on the job.
“You’re going to lose even more weight by the time this is done,” Pendergrass warns Simms with a laugh.
With hundreds of employees on site, the pontoon construction site is buzzing with activity. There’s carpenters, cement finishers, iron workers, laborers, operators and electricians. Cement trucks move routinely from a batch plant built on site and overhead cranes are everywhere. Even at night, at least 100 workers are on site with bright lights shining down to reach the furthest levels of the pontoons, constructed on the floor of the basin, which was dug about 9 ft. (2.7 m) below elevation. Three of the pontoons then raise above the ground to stand a total of 26 ft. (7.9 m) high and stretch 360 ft. (110 m) long. Two of the pontoons are slightly smaller. One is another 5 ft. (1.5 m) higher, built a bit structurally different to be the pontoon that connects with that first stretch of pavement when Highway 520 connects to the bridge.
The first cycle of six pontoons are set to be complete by mid-April. That’s when the giant casting basin will be flooded and the giant gate installed where the ground meets the Chehalis River will be opened. To get a sense of scale, the gate is 110 ft. (33 m) long, 30 ft. (9 m) tall and 10 ft. (3 m) thick, and weighs about 150 tons (136 t). The pontoons will then be floated out into the Harbor.
Pilings were driven for the launch channel and about 130,000 acres of material was dredged to facilitate the pontoons moving into the Harbor.
The four largest pontoons have already been named — Tina, Ursula, Valerie and Wendy/Wanda (there’s still a debate on which name should be used). Wallace said that their names may be put on each one to keep track of them as they float out.
“To us, we’re building ships,” Wallace said.
For now, the skeletons of the first pontoons are complete with slabs of concrete being moved into place by cranes. Give it another three weeks or so, and the structures will be ready to be capped off, Wallace said. The “cells” that help the pontoons float — kind of like a giant egg cart — are what’s being constructed now.
“The reason you have compartments is so if it takes on water into one cell it doesn’t sink the boat — each one of these cells has a blast port at the top that if you have a problem you can run a pump down and pump out everything,” Wallace said.
Wallace said the crew has run into relatively few problems since construction started, although he said the $367 million contract with the state has since had contract changes to make it valued at $378 million today.
“We always knew we’d have a learning curve on this first cycle of pontoons,” Wallace said. “We learn a lot every week and hope to streamline the process more.”
Wallace said he’s been particularly happy with the quality of concrete, which was specially created for the pontoons and uses a special aggregate of rock from a quarry at DuPont, although Wallace said Northwest Rock, a local business, also is contributing some rock.
At this point, Wallace said they’ve only found one wall with real cracks, and it wasn’t even structural cracks. Better concrete means fewer cracks, Wallace said, and less time that they have to spend repairing those cracks.
“We’ve been really focusing on that since day one,” Wallace said. “That even comes to plain figuring out how to pick up panels to make sure it doesn’t crack. Lifting panels can cause stress and some of these big panels are up to 40-ton pieces.”
“The quality has exceeded expectations,” he added.