Pipeline fever grips Alberta town as new project draws hundreds of workers

With the rest of Canada mired in a mess of national pipeline politics, one small town in Alberta is quietly making the most of its own pipeline boom.

The good times are back for Sundre, Alta., at least for a while

The pipeline trench being excavated in a rural area east of the town. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

With the rest of Canada mired in a mess of national pipeline politics, one small town in Alberta is quietly making the most of its own pipeline boom.

You won't find much controversy in Sundre, Alta. Work trucks with out of town plates come and go down the highway into town, a sign outside one bar reads "pipeliners welcome" and just outside of town, the rumble of heavy machinery.

Just one kilometre away a deep, narrow trench and immaculately cleared right of way carves through fir trees and across icy fields.

"We've got a significant number of workers coming in spending time here and spending dollars in the community, which is a great shot in the arm economically," said Mike Beukeboom, president of Sundre's chamber of commerce.

"Some of our motels that rely on the oilpatch, in the next three of four months, they could see a year's worth of income compared to last year and that's obviously very significant to those businesses," said Beukeboom.

Top left: Mike Beukeboom, president of Sundre’s Chamber of Commerce. Top right: Marty Mennear, manager of the town’s IGA. Bottom left: Rebecca Vinall, Main Avenue Liquor Store. Center: James Thorogood, MountainView Inn & Suites. Bottom right: Local landowner Jeff Rock. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

The 106 centimetre diameter pipeline will run a modest 21 kilometres, but it has an important job to do. It will connect two major gas pipelines together, increasing capacity on TransCanada's Nova Gas system, which criss-crosses all over Alberta, transporting sweet natural gas to markets across North America.

The total cost of the project is estimated at $99 million.

Just up the road from the town's chamber office stands the MountainView Inn and Suites. It's one of many hotels and motels now filled almost to capacity with pipeline workers.

"It's been very drastic," said the hotel's general manager, James Thorogood. "A year ago at this time we were looking at 10 to 20 per cent occupancy. For the next few months we're looking at 70 to 90 per cent. Tonight we're 97 per cent occupancy," he said.

"It's a big deal for the whole community. It's happening overnight and the entire community's feeling it," said Thorogood. "It's all very positive and you can feel that around town for sure."

A sign on the highway into Sundre, Alta., warning drivers of the construction work ahead. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

The town's IGA has been crunching the numbers too. The supermarket's manager say business is up at least 10 per cent since the first wave of workers came to town, with that number expected to rise as hundreds more pour in.

"We're selling lots of barbecue chicken, food for their hotel rooms. We're glad to have them here," said Marty Mennear.

The liquor store next door has been even busier.

"They come in every day. I ask them where they're from and they're from all over, from Ontario, Vancouver Island, Merrit B.C., Nova Scotia," said Rebecca Vinall from behind the counter of the Main Avenue Liquor Store.

"It's been absolutely amazing, excellent. They're friendly and we're glad to have them in our town," she added.

And it's not just businesses enjoying the economic benefits a major pipeline project like this one can bring.

A sign reads ‘Welcome Pipeliners’ at Wranglers Lounge in Sundre’s downtown. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

Although a few landowners voiced concerns during an NEB hearing into the project late last year in Calgary, others were more than happy to take TransCanada's money.

"A guy phoned me out of the blue a year ago, a landman, and he told me what they were offering for easements and it was too good to turn down," said Jeff Rock, cracking a smile from under a well worn John Deere cap.

The only sore point for some now is the number of workers from out of town and other provinces. Only a handful of the 400 to 500 workers were hired locally.

"The contractual mandate of our prime contractor is to use specific local unions that have jurisdiction over all of Alberta. Therefore, we are prioritizing Alberta union workers over non-Alberta workers," said TransCanada spokesperson, Doris Kaufmann Woodcock.

"However, it's important to note that as a nation-wide company, the prime contractor may use crew trucks from other provinces," she added.

A mural in Sundre’s downtown. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

Banister Pipelines Constructors Corp. — based in Nisku, Alta., just south of Edmonton — is the prime contractor for the line.

"We had an ask two years ago now with TransCanada that, when you can, please hire locally. But we get that it's a union job and not everyone is qualified to do that work," said the chamber's Mike Beukeboom.

Most people in Sundre are just happy to see the town booming again.

Beukeboom says after the pipeliners up and leave his town later this spring, 2018 will be looking very good for the local economy and for morale, following a forgettable couple of years.

Add to that the anticipation around an Alberta very much in recovery mode, in terms of both jobs and the economy, and you get something resembling a good news story.

"It's a great start and we're going to build on this," he said. "We're excited, there's no doubt about it."

According to TransCanada, the new line is expected to be in service by the end of the year.

About the Author

Dan McGarvey

Journalist

Dan McGarvey is a mobile journalist at CBC Calgary, filing stories for web, radio and TV using only an iPhone and mobile tech to gather and produce news stories. You can email story ideas to Dan at: dan.mcgarvey@cbc.ca