AMSTERDAM — At dawn these cold mornings, pickups with license plates from all over the country roll off the blacktop and into the gravel in front of McBee's General Store in this little Bates County town.
"Looks like a truck lot out there," said store manager Jason Dunlap.
The guys in rugged boots don't want yogurt and a banana. They arrived in early fall to build a stretch of a 600-mile oil pipeline from Illinois to Oklahoma. They're out there sunup to sundown, 12 hours a day, six days a week, freezing cold, snow, wind, rain and mud. Only a Sunday stops this bunch.
Need lodging along the route, which passes within 40 miles of Kansas City? Better have a relative. The pipeline gangs have pretty much claimed every rental unit, motel room and RV slot in the small towns along the way. Operators say business is great, a real economic boon. Same with restaurants. The Fishing Dock in Archie even started serving grits because so many of the workers are from down South.
Did the cook know how to make grits?
"Says how on the box," waitress Jocelyn Fenton said.
But the nearly $3 billion Flanagan South pipeline, designed to carry 600,000 barrels daily, is not without opposition. Its purpose will be much the same as the controversial Keystone XL pipeline — to help carry tar sands crude from western Canada to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico. The Obama administration blocked the northern part of Keystone, a move cheered by environmentalists.
The difference with the rival Flanagan South is that it does not cross an international border, so it did not require U.S. State Department approval. It ties in with pipelines outside Chicago. Also, it runs adjacent to an existing line, so most of the right of way already had been secured.
But environmental groups still oppose the project in general and the company behind it, Enbridge, specifically.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board, which has oversight on pipelines that cross state lines, Enbridge had organizational failures that led to the single most expensive onshore oil spill in U.S. history — nearly $1 billion in cleanup costs.
On July 25, 2010, a 30-inch oil pipeline owned and operated by Enbridge ruptured near Marshall, Mich. Crude spilled into an ecologically sensitive area near the Kalamazoo River until a utility worker discovered the leak.
Two years later, NTSB chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman said: "This investigation identified a complete breakdown of safety at Enbridge. Their employees performed like Keystone Kops and failed to recognize their pipeline had ruptured and continued to pump crude into the environment.
"Despite multiple alarms and a loss of pressure in the pipeline, for more than 17 hours and through three shifts they failed to follow their own shutdown procedures."
In response, Enbridge said it increased its spending on pipeline integrity management and testing to more than $450 million in each of the two years after the Michigan spill.
"Enbridge has made some significant changes since the Marshall accident, including a more robust inspection and integrity management program, as well as revised procedures pertaining to how we handle leak detection alarms and communication," spokeswoman Lara Burhenn said Friday.
"We also spent $50 million between 2012 and 2013 to improve our equipment, training and overall emergency response capabilities."
It's unlikely opponents can do anything to stop Flanagan South.
Last fall, a federal court rejected a motion for a preliminary injunction filed by the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation.
But they have not given up. The opposition has challenged the means used by the Army Corps of Engineers to approve the project. A hearing is set for Feb. 21 in federal court in Washington, D.C., according to Doug Hayes, a Sierra Club attorney in Colorado.
The Michigan spill should have raised a red flag, Hayes said.
"It makes it all that more surprising that a company like this got approved for this project," he said.
An Army Corps spokesman said Friday its authority is limited to the project's river crossings and it does not regulate pipeline operation.
And Burhenn said of the Sierra Club's challenge: "Just because a group does not like the answer or action does not mean the agencies did not do their required evaluations."
Just off U.S. 49 at the Archie exit sits the Enbridge pipeline yard, a place far removed from courtrooms, boardrooms and lawyers.
On a recent morning, cold wind quickly whisks away the breath of workers who arrived about 6 a.m. These are the guys doing Flanagan South's "Spread 3," a section that cuts through Johnson, Cass and Bates counties in Missouri before crossing into Linn County in Kansas on its way to Cushing, Okla.
They're more concerned about rock getting in their way in Missouri and Kansas than a spill in Michigan four years ago.
Probably the same for all the 4,000 mostly union workers doing the job along the 600-mile route.
Most of the "Spread 3" guys stay in motels and RV parks from Peculiar south to Passaic, Mo. Some brought wives and children along for the nine-month stay.
From the pipeline yard, the workers head out each morning to work sites. Some drive. Many ride on white school buses where they eat lunch and huddle on cold days.
Construction began in August with removal of trees and grading. Then the trench, 8 or so feet deep, is dug. Burhenn said workers are careful to keep topsoil separate from subsoil so each can be put back in the ground accordingly.
Six-by-six timbers have been laid to provide a roadway for massive earthmoving equipment.
One recent day, workers joined and coated 80-foot pipe sections to run across farmland in Linn County. Frozen ground, temperature in the 20s, bit of a wind.
"We're out here in 10 below — we don't shut down," said Terry Yohn, a welding inspector from Nebraska. "This is better than mud (clinging) when your feet get real big. We've done that too. That is exhausting."
A woman driving one of the buses said she remembers a day with minus 30 wind chill.
"I'm in the bus with it running, so it's not that bad for me," Jaimie Czeschin said. "I don't know how they do it out there."
It's their life, they'll say. Ask one how long they've been doing it and the likely answer is "Forever."
Even though it means being away from home for long periods.
"I missed a lot of things when my kids were growing up, but my being here means I can provide things for them," said Ronnie Lawson, from south of Houston.
Then there's Roy Sanders, a "hot pass" inspector from San Augustine, Texas. His hat was set low against the wind that blew across the barren landscape.
"My kids are grown," he yelled to be heard above the bulldozers. "I like to travel."