Something BIG is coming

Province's highways are ready to handle slew of modules from South Korea

When the first of about 200 enormous modules from South Korea destined for the Kearl oilsands project near Fort McMurray lumbers over the border from Montana this fall, it will hit highways that don't usually see giant loads.

Highways 4, 845, 539, and a portion of Highway 36 lie south of the province's High Load Corridor. As in Idaho and Montana, work is underway to ready the road for the big event.

Alberta Transportation has already undertaken road and bridge analyses to determine the maximum dimensions the chosen route could support.

"They [the modules' manufacturer] will build the modules up to the maximum capacity of the bridges," explains Mizanur Rahman, bridge evaluation engineer for Alberta Transportation. "Bridges can also handle different types of load depending on how they are spreading the load among the axles on the trailer."

The dimensions are detailed in a provincial module policy. That policy states that loads can be up to 7.32 m wide and 9 m high (height is measured from the road surface). The maximum speed at which the modules will travel is about 50 km/h, with crawling speed of about 6 km/h.

The majority of modules required for the first 100,000 bbl/d phase of the project will be manufactured in Alberta, says Imperial Oil spokesman Pius Rolheiser. But these 200 loads are being fabricated in South Korea by "a supplier with a proven track record."

Fortunately, utility lines crossing highways 28 and 63 in the High Load Corridor are already high enough to let the modules pass. Those on the other highways are at a standard 5.3 m. Imperial Oil, Kearl's developer, is paying to move the lines in 121 locations. The question is whether the company will do it temporarily or permanently.

The first option would see the power shut off and the line raised to let each load go through, then lowered again. Because the modules will pass one at a time over a period of approximately one year, perhaps as often as five per week, this option could lead to a lot of disgruntled locals who have to put up with frequent power outages.

"We got information from them that they are planning to raise or bury the power lines along that portion of highway south of Highway 1," Rahman says. It's to the company's advantage, as well as beneficial to the rest of the industry as the oilsands are further developed. "Once they raise the lines or bury the lines, it is a one-time, done deal, so they can move their loads without any interruption," Rahman says.

Overhead railway signals at two locations will also have to be modified. The oilsands company is working with Alberta Transportation and Transport Canada to ensure that Transport Canada's safety standards are maintained when changes are made.

Alberta Transportation will also have to stay on top of what's happening on the roads between this fall and the fall of 2011.

"We need to coordinate with everyone along that [stretch of] highway," Rahman says. Upcoming construction and repaving will be scheduled or rescheduled to fit around the modules.

According to U.S. press reports, the modules will be shipped from South Korea to the Port of Portland. From there they will be moved by barge on the Columbia and Snake rivers to Lewiston, Idaho. Then they will be transferred to trucks, which will travel into Montana over Lolo Pass on U.S. Highway 12. Rolheiser says it will take 10 days to move the modules from landing at Portland to the Kearl site 70 km northeast of Fort McMurray.

Montana residents not used to seeing the giant loads are learning about the modules through reports in the news media. Not everyone seems to be in favour of the work. According to the Associated Press, a Missoula, Mon., river guide has been collecting signatures to halt the transport along the Lochsa River corridor in Idaho, because it is classified as a Wild and Scenic River.

Construction of the first phase of Kearl is expected to be complete in 2012.
Oilsands Review editor Deborah Jaremko contributed to this report.

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