Challenges for Industry and Town

Camp 11, Kildala Pass. November 5, 1953

Industry was challenged by two costly power outages in the winters of 1955 and 1957. Power interruption in January 1955 was caused by abnormally heavy snow slides:

We had our problems, right at the beginning we had an avalanche that took out both sides of the transmission lines on January 25th, 1955, at about 12:30 pm, at lunch time.  I was just walking into the staff house and the lights went out.  All these breakers went off bang, bang, bang, in the Kemano switch house and I was wondering, what was going on, no lights.  Well, we jumped in the helicopter.  We couldn’t get up into where the avalanche came down because of fog and snow…  When I got up there the next day and saw the total destruction.  Well Kitimat was black.  Kitimat didn’t have any power, so we set a program pretty quickly and we had power restored on the left line…  So that was one experience, six months after I took over the transmission line…  Of course it took months and months to restore the Kitimat plant which only had about two potlines, because everything froze and the technology at that time to restart a potline was kind of complicated.  (Adam Charneski)

Adam Charneski inspects insulators on the transmission line.

“Because there were four towers taken out by this massive avalanche, I remember the day when a fellow by the name of Jack Kendrick, Brian White and myself flew up in there to assess.  This was later on in the spring – about April – and we were saying, what are we going to do to restore this transmission line?  We were standing there on the rocks down below and looking around, and everything is a mess around us, and I said, “It sure would be nice to have a sky hook.  Then we could jump this whole avalanche area, this whole glacier.”  Everybody said, yeah, it sure would be nice to have something up there like that and that’s when the catenary system was born.  We said we can swing a bridge cable from one side of the valley to the other side, from east to west and we’ll span the whole area – no towers down below, because there was no way to protect those towers against these massive avalanches that were coming down there…  Construction was started in about July 55 and it was finished in late October of 1955 with the catenary system in place.  (Adam Charneski)

In the meantime they started up the old construction generators after five days….to supply power to the townsite ….I had them install propane heating for cooking and so-on in our apartment…. I didn’t have lights but I had the heat and I had cooking …All the wives heard about this and they came over … to heat the food for their children or the bottles for their babies….  (Noel Lewis-Watts)

The pots all froze…. They had to be jackhammered out… and what they did was instead of trying to put up these three towers, they strung a catenary …from one peak to the other … from one side of the valley to the other side of the valley and hung insulators off them and hung the wires from the insulators…. They strung the catenary and got things back operating again.  (Noel Lewis-Watts)

I was just about to take a bite out of my sandwich when everything went black. I immediately got on the phone to Kemano and they said, ‘No, everything’s fine here.’ We would know there was a fault because suddenly there would be no load on their generators. There was nothing they could do and nothing we could do so they just sat tight.  (Noel Lewis-Watts)

In May 1957, a power outage cost the Company millions of dollars as five potlines froze.  No layoffs occurred - workers were shifted to chipping hardened aluminum out of pots with jackhammers and air compressors.  Homeowners were urged to cut their power use or face rationing, and schools had to operate on reduced power.  Night school classes were cancelled.

Crest showing transmission towers and '1956 Kitimat'

In October 1957, the world market price of aluminum plummeted and 1,200 workers of Saguenay-Kitimat and 500 sub-contractors were laid off.  With supply exceeding demand – consumption dropping 3% and customers reducing their inventories - the smelter's parent company Aluminium Ltd. called a halt to the smelter's expansion.  One union leader said the situation could "spell the doom" of Kitimat and could make Kitimat "the most modern ghost town in Canada."  Within months, Kitimat's population of 13,000 dwindled to 7,200.  Union leaders advised workers to sit tight.

“The year 1958 began with a challenge due to a power interruption in December 1957.  Through teamwork and hard work the challenge was rapidly conquered and by the end of the year we went on to establish records in production and metal purity.” Kitimat - Kemano: Five Years of Operation, 1954-1959, Aluminum Company of Canada 

A tunnel collapse – a rock fall – in 1961 led to the closure of the smelter for two-and-a-half months.  The event left all 1,450 workers with “an extended/summer holiday” as it came to be called by local media.  The Company deferred mortgage payments on Company-owned houses until the end of the shutdown as workers filed for Unemployment Insurance, and credit was extended by local businesses such as the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Employees were a tremendous help to the company when considering the process of smelting aluminum.  Some ways not considered most efficient or money saving were redesigned:

Ivan Szametz loved pots, designing pots.  At one stage of the game, somebody said to him, we are wasting something.  Now, Ivan was not a metallurgical guy at all, but he was into these pots, and the electricity that went with them and so on.  He said, I know we are wasting something, we are wasting all that stuff we are scrubbing.  All the effluent, we used to pump it out through wet scrubbers…  He said, “We are taking a whole lot of aluminum fluoride from St. Andrews in Newfoundland, and shipping it all the way around here… What we want to do is take those …wet scrubbers out and take all that effluent and filter it [back] through alumina…They saved millions, millions of dollars because the alumina picked up the fluoride…That is good recycling.  (A.E. “Dutch” Vrooman)