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Spuzzum section of transmission line completed in style

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A BC Hydro crew works at dusk to assemble a section of transmission tower on a section of the Interior to Lower Mainland transmission line in the Fraser Canyon, just north of Hope.

Crews complete work ahead of schedule, win award for doing it safely

It's one thing to complete a transmission project ahead of schedule. It's quite another to install 49 towers and 19.4 kilometres of cable over five tricky crossings in the Fraser Canyon without a single significant injury to a worker.

The BC Hydro crews working on the Spuzzum section of the Interior to Lower Mainland transmission line rejoiced at finishing on July 6, about six weeks ahead of schedule. And they were proud to be later recognized with a BC Hydro Group Safety Award of Honour for doing it so safely.

"My stress level has dropped considerably since this project ended," says Gary Sawatsky, one of two general foremen who led three crews on 21-days-on, seven-days-off duty, often toiling dawn until dusk, then sleeping in RVs and cottages at the Emory Bar campground near Yale. "We'd all be waking up in the middle of the night, thinking about the challenges we had ahead of us. We solved a lot of problems waking up at 2 o'clock in the morning."

Located north of Hope, the Spuzzum segment is part of the 247-kilometre long Interior to Lower Mainland transmission line, a 500-kilovolt line being built to parallel an existing 500 kV line that's almost 40 years old. It's the first 500-kilovolt line we've built in more than four decades, and a major part of the work we must do to meet B.C.'s electricity demand — which is expected to grow by as much as 45 per cent over the next 20 years.

The Interior to Lower Mainland line will deliver power from our major hydroelectric generating stations on the Peace and Columbia rivers — such as the Mica Dam near Revelstoke — to homes and businesses in the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island. Now about 90% complete, the transmission line stretches over mountains, rivers and grasslands from the Nicola substation near Merritt to the Meridian substation in Coquitlam.

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A huge crane helicopter carries a section of transmission tower. The helicopter works with a smaller "spotter" helicopter to act as another set of eyes as the section is lowered into place on the base of the tower.

Over a river and way up a mountain

The most daunting part of the project was the stretch of transmission line that started on one side of the Fraser River and finished with an up-and-over crossing of a nearby mountain.

"The toughest was the middle section that went across a 60-kV line, the Fraser Canyon Highway, across two sets of railway tracks, across the Fraser River, across an existing 500 KV transmission line and then straight up and over the mountain," says Sawatsky. "This section of the line went rom 100 metres above sea level, down to sea level, and then back up and over a 1,200-metre mountain."

Sawatsky says he still can't resist sharing with friends the video and photos of the transmission line project. Work on the Spuzzum section north of Hope started late in the summer of 2014 after it was decided that the safest, cost-effective way to finish the most challenging section of the line was to use our own crews instead of contractors. Thanks in part to a mild winter that all but eliminated snowfall and muddy conditions as major hurdles, the crews worked alongside massive equipment, and helicopters big and small, to get the job done well ahead of schedule.

See the Global News story that includes video of helicopter work near Spuzzum

Big towers, big weight, careful planning

The heavy lifting for installation of the transmission towers was done by huge crane helicopters, which would work with on-the-ground crews and a smaller 'spotter helicopter' that would act as an agile second pair of eyes. But one of the most difficult parts of installing the line, up and over the mountain, was pulling the heavy transmission line cable through angles at each tower and over the mountains.

While some things haven't changed since Sawatsky joined BC Hydro 35 years ago — we used helicopters to install towers back then, too — those towers were nowhere near as big as the towers of today. The new route also called for ingenuity and careful planning.

"I've worked on tough jobs, but nothing as stressful as this one," he says. "It was the amount of weight we were dealing with that caused that stress. If something were to break or let go… I just couldn't imagine what would happen. That conductor [wire] would land in the river and be on its way to the ocean.

"There were just so many variables that made up part of our planning."

A brand new puller located up the mountain required up to 38,000 pounds of pulling force to pull the four bundles of inch-and-a-quarter-thick cable — known as "conductor" — over five kilometres up the hill.

Everything is bigger these days, including the towers, the conductor span lengths, and even the bolts and hardware. Sawatsky says plates used in building these towers were sometimes so heavy that two or three guys couldn't pick them up — a crane track would have to be used.

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Crane helicopter hovers above a tower after lowering the tower section in place. A crew on the ground then takes over the job of fastening the section to the tower.

Safety is part of crews' culture

BC Hydro's Group Safety Award of Honour, which recognizes teams for achieving 220,000 hours of service without a single disabling injury, usually takes years to achieve. However, the intensive nature of the work required on this transmission project had the crew reach the award milestone in just under a year.

"The minimal number of medical aids, near misses and vehicle incidents on this project really shows the quality of safety communications and processes that were followed for the Spuzzum segment," said project manager Ron Nixon. "It takes a thoroughly engaged team to achieve such excellent safety results.

As stressful as work planning was for the project, Sawatsky says he had nothing but confidence in the way the crews — made up of 10 power line technicians, several apprentices and a machine operator — paid attention to the safety details that mattered. Long gone are the days when workers would "free climb" poles and towers — no climbing today gets done without a safety harness in place at all times.

Sawatsky said the 21-days-on stints at the campground were made a bit more palatable in that he, and a few others working there, lived close enough to drive in an hour or so to their Fraser Valley homes when they were needed at home. But the work schedule was more challenging for those who came from Vancouver Island or the B.C. interior to be part of the project.

"It was like a big family," he said. "We had 28 people living in trailers, we had others living in houses or suites above the campground store. In the first few months, we were coming off the mountain when it was dark. We were working up to 8, 9 and even 10 o'clock if we had to finish something. By the time we got back to camp, had a shower and something to eat, it was time to go to bed again."