King of the construction site

Fri Jun 22 13:03:00 CEST 2012

K+S Potash Canada is building a new highyield potash plant in the the southern Canadian province of Saskatchewan. Construction is moving along at top speed. Right in the middle is Gene Cochrane, the man currently in charge of the enormous construction site. Scoop spent a day with him.

July 22, 2012

Gene Cochrane won the lottery. He was given a spot for his mobile home right at the lake. The location was so desirable that the regional park authorities organized a lottery for it and Cochrane was the lucky winner. The Canadian native can park his ten-meter long trailer on the shore of Buffalo Pond for the summer. When he is here on weekends, Cochrane is captivated by the view of the deep blue water, the grasslands, and the rolling prairie hills. The best time to enjoy it is when barbecuing in the evening. A father of two sons, Cochrane sometimes builds a campfire. And often his colleagues are here too. “A boat would shorten my way to work,” observes Cochrane and points to the opposite shore. That’s where the new pump station for the Legacy Project is located. When he wants to go there, he has to drive around the lake.

Cochrane finds fulfillment not only in camping, but also in his job. At the age of 47, he is the director of the construction site for K+S Potash Canada, and is working on one of the most important future prospects for the K+S Group – the Legacy Project. K+S is investing 3.25 billion Canadian dollars in the new potash deposit in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. Production is scheduled to start not far from the lake in 2015. Cochrane is one of 85 employees and contract workers currently involved in building the production facilities at the site.

During the week, Cochrane lives in the town of Moose Jaw. He drives to work in his white truck. It’s shortly after 6 am on Tuesday morning. The sun has risen above the horizon and is bathing the prairie in golden light. After a while we see a green sign that reads “K+S Potash Canada, Legacy Mine Site.” From here we enter a gravel road running through a landscape of fields, cattle, silos, and colorful farmhouses. A large derrick appears in the distance, and then we start passing construction equipment and office containers. “I really like the idea of helping to build the site from the very beginning,” says Cochrane, adding that “you only get this type of chance once in a lifetime.” It is the first new potash mine in Saskatchewan in 40 years.

Cochrane himself has been in the potash business for 28 years. He has been working on the Legacy Project for a few months. His job is to supervise and coordinate the construction work and to handle the contacts with outside companies.

Eighteen containers are set up on a gravel surface surrounded by green fields and bushes. They serve as offices for the construction management. It is shortly before 7 am. Cochrane sits down at his desk and turns on his laptop. A few photos of his wife and two sons are set up next to it. His brand-new construction overalls with reflector strips hang from a hook on the wall. “I’m usually the first one here in the morning and the last to leave in the evening,” he says with a smile.

He quickly sends off a few mails. Then his main assistant enters the office, and reports on what has happened over the weekend. The roofs of some of the new buildings are nearly finished. There are concerns from members of the local community, who are worried about the condition of the gravel road that leads to the mine. And some farmers want to know where they can let their cattle graze. The showers in the changing rooms aren’t working. “Nothing that we can’t deal with,” says the construction director and picks up the phone.

An hour later he puts on his white hard hat. He wants to make sure that everything is in order at the brine field. It will be three kilometers from the site with the containers and the future production facilities. On the way, he explains that “we’re going to be doing solution mining here.” In simple terms, this process consists of pumping solution down into the rock through a borehole. The fluid dissolves the raw material from the seams, and it collects in underground caverns. The resulting brine is then brought to the surface via a second borehole, and purified and dried in the production plant. By 2023, the site is expected to produce 2.86 million tons of potash a year.

Pipelines are already laying in ditches to the left and right of the road to the brine field. They will carry the fluids back and forth between the plant and the drilling stations. Other than the grassland, there is still not much else to see. But soon the first five drilling stations will be finished. The first one has already been leveled and prepared. Two boreholes, which extend down 1,500 meters, are also finished. When production starts there will be 18 holes per drilling station.

What is Cochrane’s greatest challenge? Time and good staff. “We’re on a tight schedule for the construction work, including coordinating everything with outside companies and the authorities,” he explains. And it’s not easy to find qualified personnel. At its peak level of activity in 2014 and 2015, the construction site will employ more than 2,000 people. “But I’m confident that everything will go well and be finished on time,” he says.