Commercial Divers Delve Into Details Taking Precautions Keeps Them From Getting In Over Their Heads

Zip a pipefitter into a special suit. Pop a spaceman helmet on his head and drop him in 50, 100, maybe 200 feet of cold, murky water.

Now, he’s a macho, danger-defying guy, right?

Nah, says Roger Rouleau, who plunged into commercial diving when he was a 17-year-old Seattle kid. Extreme attention to safety, he contends, keeps the work from being risky.

“The most dangerous thing we’ve done? That’s probably driving home when we’re tired.”

Rouleau, now 44, lives in Coeur d’Alene and operates United Marine Services, based in the Spokane Valley.

The underwater construction and exploration company employs up to 25 divers at a time in far-flung places. This month, they’re working on projects meant to get salmon and steelhead safely past two hydropower dams: Lower Granite, here on the Snake River; and Wanapum Dam, on the Columbia.

The rocky, spring-green hillsides of the Snake River Valley are a far cry from other places where the divers find work, such as Arctic pipelines and ocean oil platforms.

They have glamorous jobs, and grungy ones. They took part in a National Geographic-sponsored exploration of the shipwreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, for example. They plunged into tropical seas for an IMAX film made in the Bahamas.

Then there are those pulp mill sewage outlets that need to be cleaned …

Seventy-five percent of the company’s work is at dams.

The divers are attaching a giant tunnel to the face of Lower Granite Dam. The tunnel, called a surface collector, is supposed to guide tiny migrating fish away from hydropower turbines and safely over a spillway.

The surface collector at Lower Granite was designed by the dam’s owner, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It will be 60 feet high, 20 feet wide, and slide up and down to accommodate different water levels in the reservoir.

The divers started in January, when the water was just above freezing. They wore special wetsuits heated by circulating water.

They’re hustling, faced with Mother Nature’s tight deadline.

“This job’s supposed to be done by the first part of April when the fish come down,” Rouleau said last week as he stood atop the concrete monolith called Lower Granite Dam.

On a barge below him, dark-haired diver Scott Dimmick suited up. He was going underwater to find out why two 34-ton sections of steel bulkhead weren’t fitting together properly.

With air and communication cables attached, he stepped into the gray-green reservoir. The sound of his breathing came over the radio in the barge control room.

“Will you flip my light on for me, please?” he asked dive supervisor Kirk Neumann.

Dimmick was only seven feet down, but the Lower Granite work takes divers as far as 70 feet into the water. The passageway they’re building, known as a surface collector, is 60 feet deep. Their main job is to bolt its 39 sections onto the face of the dam.

They’re using mining equipment to drill 14-foot-deep, 3-inch-wide holes for the bolts. Rouleau got the notion that would work after talking with mining industry friends in Coeur d’Alene.

“I thought: Here’s an idea we’ll use someday under water. And, by golly, it worked very well.”

He’s also proud of an underwater “first” accomplished last year at Libby Dam: cutting steel at a depth of 240 feet.

The steel worker in that case was wearing an atmospheric diving suit, known as a “Newtsuit.” Invented by Phil Nuytten, co-owner of United Marine Services, the suit can take divers down to 1,000 feet.

Complexity, not depth, provides the challenge at Lower Granite.

“There’s 400 pages of drawings for this project,” said Neumann.

If the surface collection system works, Neumann said, it might end discussion of using reservoir drawdowns. That’s an extremely controversial proposal for increasing salmon survival by flushing fish to the ocean.

Divers for the projects come from all over the West. They’re all men. There are few gray hairs among them.

“This is a young man’s job,” Neumann said.

Besides being physically demanding, Rouleau said, the work requires inventiveness and planning.

“When you jump in the water, you know exactly what’s going to happen when you get there,” Rouleau said. “If there are any surprises, you should know how to take care of them.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

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