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3 generations tend natural gas in China Twp.

Maraleen Cottrell knows a thing or two about the rock beneath China Township, the natural gas that’s stored there and the decades of workers who have pushed and pulled the energy source from the ground.

When your father, husband and son have all worked at the DTE Energy Belle River Mills Compressor Station, it’s hard not to pick up on the nuances of natural gas.

“My father began in the gas industry Nov. 11, 1946,” the China Township woman said. “I’ve been fascinated with it ever since.

“It was his life.”

For the Cottrells and DTE Energy, this week marks decades of hard work, evolving technology and memories at the China Township natural gas storage field.

The Belle River Mills Compressor Station celebrates 50 years Saturday.

DTE Energy expects more than 250 to 300 current employees, past employees, neighbors and community leaders to attend an anniversary celebration Saturday.

Erica Donerson, a DTE Energy spokeswoman, said the event is not open to the public due to site safety concerns.

The 30 current employees at the Puttygut Road station operate three underground storage fields: Belle River Mills, Columbus and West Columbus. The three locations can store 100 billion cubic feet of natural gas.

The station purchases, compresses and stores natural gas during the summer, then sells, decompresses and transports the gas during the winter months.

Donerson said Belle River Mills is DTE’s largest storage field. It provides the majority of the winter natural gas supply to customers throughout the state.

“This is the ideal storage field, best storage field east of the Mississippi,” said Joe Sexton, transmission specialist for the compressor station.

“In March, when everyone else is running out, we’re backing everybody else up.”

“Everything from Detroit is fed from here,” as well as customers in Toronto, Traverse City, Ludington, Grayling and Gaylord, Jeff Cottrell said.

Jeff Cottrell, Maraleen’s son, has worked in the natural gas business for 28 years. Maraleen’s husband, Fred Cottrell, worked in the business from 1971-98; and her father, Orlin Denslow worked in the natural gas business from 1946-85.

Denslow died in March 2014.

A senior repairman for the company, Jeff Cottrell said the Belle River compression station is often lumped in with the towering Belle River Power Plant across the street, but its mission is different and its future more secure than coal-fired power plants.

“We were the first Belle River,” Jeff said, with a laugh. “They copied us across the street.”

Donerson said over the next 15 years, DTE Energy and other Michigan utilities will retire 60 percent of today’s coal-fired generation due to new environmental regulations and the age of the plants.

“We will replace that generating capacity with renewables, cleaner natural gas-fired power plants and increased energy efficiency,” Donerson said in an email.

“Belle River Mills Compressor Station will be integral to this transition, since it is responsible for natural gas storage and transportation.”

In 2012, DTE Energy invested about $4 million into Belle River Mills Compressor Station. That amount grew to $8 million in 2013 and $12 million in 2014.

Belle River Mills Compressor Station originally was a production field. It became a storage field 50 years ago, in 1965.

In the decades that Maraleen’s husband, son, and father have worked at the site, technology has advanced, operations have expanded and dozens of local families have made a living.

Maraleen said she can remember her father walking to well heads in the dead of winter in snow shoes. Or the days when she and her family lived on site at the station, along with dozens of other employees.

Maraleen and Fred Cottrell said they’re thankful for the life they’ve made around the natural gas fields. In retirement, they still try to keep up on the nuances of the business.

“A lot of the community does not realize the caliber of employees that are here,” Maraleen said. “They are such top notch, caring employees.”

“Anybody who works for them ought to be thankful to work for them,” Fred said.

After 26 years with MichCon and DTE Energy, Sexton plans to follow in Fred’s footsteps and retire. His last working day is Nov. 20.

Sexton has worked on a hot oiler truck during much of that time, maintaining and fixing wells that may have problems.

The large truck is unique, even in the natural gas business. It is the only one of its kind in DTE Energy and it’s rare for a utility company to own and operate one. The truck has a burner system on it to heat fluid and three pumps, one of which is capable of 6,000 PSI.

Sexton said his job has required precision and focus to maintain safety while working with the burner around natural gas.

“It can be dangerous,” Sexton said. “This whole business, there’s a lot of danger in it. You have to come to work focused every day.

“But it’s a safely run operation.”

 

Source: The Times Herald

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