Fuss Hollow man's Alaska work is serious, fascinating

Friday, August 19, 2011
Maintenance of pipes and valves continues at Prudoe Bay under harsh conditions.

David Scott has a quick grin and a blue zillion tales to tell about his job in Alaska.

The 54-year-old Marshall County native works for CH2M Hill, a British Petroleum subcontractor that provides services at the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.

"On a clear day, I can see the North Pole," he said while talking about work.

That's a far cry from his home in Fuss Hollow, he said during a lengthy interview this week at a Cornersville Highway eatery. His home is in the Petersburg, Marshall and Lincoln County-areas. Fuss Holler (as Scott would spell and pronounce it) is on the county line. His house is in Marshall County.

"We don't fuss down there" in Fuss Holler, he said grinning. "We take care of it."

Then with a semi-serious look, he adds, "They have four cemeteries there."

His quick and ready smile, as well as his experience as a carpenter and with scaffolding, are apparently what landed him the job in unforgiving weather on assignments that demand adherence to strict rules and regulations.

Safety, Scott said, is emphasized at his work so much that it's a way of life in the bitter cold of Alaska. Beyond that, there are tremendous consequences for errors, given the gravity of the situation with oil wells, as realized by the world when the Deep Sea Horizon rig blew up in the Gulf of Mexico.

"I work a three-week rotation; 21 days on and 21 days off," Scott said.

That schedule gives rise to the workingman's view of safety since there's a 50-50 chance of survival if there's an accident resulting in an explosion at Prudhoe Bay. You survive an explosion if you're at home. If not, you don't.

As much as he likes what he's doing -- "I'm having a blast" -- Scott was a happy man at the diner table Monday afternoon. "This is what I miss," he said over a plate of southern cooking. The food is good at the CH2M Hill chow hall, but you can tell what day it is by the menu. There's a rotation.

His employers are five engineers. CH2M Hill stands for names. There are two that start with M. One each with C and H, and then there's a man named Hill. Scott's approach to that: Go figure.

He leaves Marshall County Aug. 22 to be back at work on Aug. 25. Like his cousin, Edwin Scott of Cedar Street, Steve is looking forward to more country food at the Delina crossroads today. He'll even autograph his newspaper picture.

Next month, he'll be making sure that all pipe sections are at the same level. That's one of his chief assignments.

"There is a lot of frost-heave," he said. "Over time, things change."

So, he and co-workers build scaffolds to reposition the pipes. Sounds simple, but the temperature might be 50 degrees below zero.

"I've been out in 70 degrees below zero," Scott said. "It's a different kind of cold. It's dry. The worst is the wind. We'd be out there working regardless, but it's not like you'd be out in it all day. The company requires you to take warm-up breaks. If you get frost bit, you're in trouble."

Trucks are left running at times to be sure they'll be running when needed. Otherwise, there's an engine block heating system. Now, temperatures might allow shirtsleeves and no coat.

"This is the safest place I've ever worked," Scott said.

The work ethic at Prudhoe Bay is different from other construction jobs where he's worked.

Most places, he said, you do your job. If you get hurt, you just go and do it.

"Up there," Scott said, "before we start a job, we have to do a safety analysis, review it and follow it. We must go over every job and know what could go wrong with lifting, welding..."

A minor injury may be painful, but because the work is remote, that pain might last a long time.

"They have medical facilities there, but it's mostly triage... You could be in major pain" before hospital treatment is available, he said.

There's also remarkable respect for the environment, partly because Native Americans control it, but there seems to be a sense of good stewardship among the contractors and subcontractors. If a truck's motor oil spills, it must be dug up, bagged twice, examined, re-bagged and stored.

As a happy carpenter in Alaska, Scott has found work he likes after having tried construction in the lower 48 states. His work may seem as routine as driving a truck and replacing a building door, but the location of the 12-hour shifts every other three weeks provides a much broader view of the world.

His conversation with workers leads him to believe the nation's economy is improving. He saw trouble as far back as when the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed and led to export of American jobs. He notes the disappearance of jobs at Sanford and ICP here, but also Lee jeans' departure from Fayetteville. The list goes on. He was a carpenter in Kansas City. He even tried working as a massage therapist.

He's frank about his marriage and divorce, and a daughter's death at age six from a brainstem tumor. Still down from a bad time, Scott had a friend who had a friend who worked in Alaska. They clicked and he applied for work up north.

Now, as for what all Americans face - the high price of gasoline - Scott comments: "Nobody likes it."

His stand: "I'd rather us use more Alaskan oil. OPEC (the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) has had a choke hold on us for years. BP sells to the world. We're just developing our petroleum and there's a lot of oil up there."

As for the oil at ANWR, the Arctic national wildlife refuge, Scott says, "I don't know why we're not using it."

Scott's older sister was born at his parents' home. His father, Frank, died in 1993. His mother, Lois, died in 2008. He's a Lincoln County High School graduate and his sisters - Deborah Hardin, the state's director of nursing, and Frances Murdock, director of the Marshall County Senior citizens Center - live at Petersburg.

Scott gets his mail through the Petersburg Post Office, but he works in Alaska.