Las Bambas megaproject takes two alumni high in the Andes, reshaping a remote Peruvian area

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Bechtel crews are building the copper concentrator for a new mine high in the Peruvian Andes. Once the mine starts producing early in 2016, it will be one of the top sources of copper in the world. Two Georgia Tech alumni, Steve Curtis and Justin Norman, are helping lead the $8 billion project to engineer and build the concentrator and some of the infrastructure needed to even get to the site. (Photo Courtesy of Justin Norman.)

What’s your commute to work like? Maybe 30 minutes or an hour in the car. Perhaps a ride on a commuter bus or train. If you’re lucky, you might ride a bike — or simply walk across campus to class.

For Georgia Tech alumni Steve Curtis and Justin Norman, it’s much more complicated.

Their commute involves plane flights, buses, pickup trucks and, on a good day, a helicopter. All told, it takes between six and 15 hours to get from home to work, depending on the weather and mode of travel.

That’s because they’re working on a massive construction project high in the Peruvian Andes for Bechtel, building the copper concentrator for an $8 billion mine project that will be among the world’s top-producing sources of copper from its very first year.

“One challenge presented by this project is that it is a greenfield. There was no infrastructure of any kind when we arrived. Water, power and all other services had to be designed, procured and constructed,” said Norman, who earned his bachelor’s degree in building construction in 1997 and is the project controls manager for the Bechtel portion of the work. That includes engineering, procurement and construction of the process plant and some infrastructure.

“The scale of the mine, concentrator and other facilities is immense,” he said. “We peaked at over 12,000 contracted personnel spread out across five camps and one village. I have been on projects with similar numbers, but the remoteness and access issues have complicated transport of materials and people.”

“The project is at 4,200 meters above sea level. The altitude takes some getting used to,” said Curtis, who graduated in 1977 with a civil engineering bachelor’s. “Many new visitors get sick the first day or two at the site.”

The switchback road trucks have to travel up the mountain to the reach the Las Bambas work site where Tech alumni Steve Curtis and Justin Norman are helping build a copper concentrator with Bechtel. (Photo by Andy Phelps.)

Curtis typically works 14 days on site, followed by seven days off. He said that remoteness means a different lifestyle for workers, one that’s devoid of many of the diversions and comforts most of us are used to.

“We are living in a camp. There are no stores, no restaurants, no movies. The options are to work, eat and sleep while at the camp,” he said. “Justin and I go to a gym in the mornings. Running, stationary bike or lifting weights at altitude is a different experience. You can run out of breath just doing sit-ups.”

Curtis is Bechtel’s deputy project manager for the huge undertaking, which has injected $44 million into a local economy that has traditionally focused on subsistence farming, according to the company. Bechtel says it has hired 1,500 local workers and helped train them for higher-skill jobs like welding or surveying.

It’s just the beginning of changes for the area once the concentrator is finished and the mine starts producing copper — along with significant by-products of gold, silver and molybdenum.

An overland conveyor workers use to move materials at the remote Las Bambas site high in the Andes Mountains in Peru. At its peak, work on the site employed 12,000 people. (Photo Courtesy of Justin Norman.)

“Traffic on the road will be the most significant impact to the local communities,” Curtis said. “There will be significant truck traffic carrying copper concentrate from the mine to a port in Southern Peru. [MMG, the mine’s owner,] has spent, and will spend, a lot of money for local infrastructure, local training, job creation programs, use of local businesses, etc., to provide assistance and support to the local communities.”

Curtis said his work on this project, and others with Bechtel’s Mining and Metals Group, has been much more exotic than the three decades he spent working mostly on transportation projects in Atlanta and Washington D.C.

“The culture with Bechtel is quite interesting,” he said. “In a very short period of time, you can work on several projects in very remote parts of the world.”

“As a construction student, I had imagined that I would be working more on commercial-type work as opposed to heavy industrial,” Norman said. “I have found the work I do much more satisfying and challenging in terms of not only the construction, but also in terms of everything that I have been exposed to across all engineering disciplines — civil, mechanical, control systems, process — and how they all come together to complete and hand over a functioning facility to our clients.”

B.S. Civil Engineering, 1977

How long have you been with Bechtel? Have you worked for other companies?
I have worked for Bechtel for 10 years. The previous 30 years were working for consulting firms either in the Atlanta area or in the Washington DC area. Working in Chile and Peru have been much more exotic than all of my previous experiences.

Is this the kind of work you wanted to do when you were studying to become a civil engineer?
Exactly the type of work that I wanted to do. I have a dual degree in math and civil engineering.  I worked one summer as a site engineer for a construction company and decided that that was the career I wanted to pursue. I originally wanted to go into construction but ended up designing bridges in and around the Atlanta area after I graduated from Tech.

Why did you want to be an engineer?
I was good in math but did not want to be a math teacher. Engineering was a natural fit, and after the summer construction job as an engineer, the decision was made.

What other kinds of projects have you worked on in your career?
Prior to working with the Mining and Metals group with Bechtel, I have worked primarily on transportation projects. After graduating from Georgia Tech, I spent the next 13 years in Atlanta working on highway projects for private consulting firms who had projects with Georgia DOT. Much of the I-75/I-85 [Downtown Connector] and some of the I-285 highway and bridges I worked on in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

B.S. Building Construction, 1997

How long have you been with Bechtel? Have you worked for other companies?
After graduating, I worked for Beers Construction in Atlanta [now part of Skanska] and a couple of other smaller contractors in the U.S., Guatemala and Chile. I was hired by Bechtel in Chile as a planner and have worked with the company for 14 years.

Why did you want to do this kind of work?
I really enjoy the hands on aspect of my work and the balance between the technical and commercial responsibilities that my department is accountable for. I have been fortunate enough to have spent roughly half my time with Bechtel working in the home office on studies and front-end project work and the other half in the field on projects from site development through start-up.

What other kinds of projects have you worked on in your career?
In my time with Bechtel, I have always worked in our Mining and Metals division. I have worked on copper, aluminum and iron ore projects in Chile, Peru, Canada and Iceland. Work has also taken me to our offices in the U.S., Australia and Poland.