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Onlookers gather to watch a mega-load destined for Alberta’s oil sands. (DARIN OSWALD/AP)
Onlookers gather to watch a mega-load destined for Alberta’s oil sands. (DARIN OSWALD/AP)

A heavy task: How Alberta’s oil sands gets its crucial mega-loads Add to ...

During the wee hours of most mornings, the main thoroughfare in Fort McMurray plays host to a careful operation intended to help supply the megaprojects of the oil sands with the giant steel and metal parts they need to operate.

Municipal crews manually swivel traffic light stands 90 degrees, so the overhang is out of the path of the towering loads – some taller than a three-storey building – carried by tractor trailers. Roadside signs are temporarily removed to make more room. Bridges tremble as the massive freight creeps slowly across the centre of their decks.

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The pieces to keep the oil industry humming often weigh more than 90 tonnes – and on a few occasions as much as 800 tonnes – and require special transport permits and often weeks of logistical planning.

In Alberta, moving the massive modules, coke drums, and parts for upgraders and plants is a specialized, little-known business with lots of room to grow.

Oil sands operators rely on large prefabricated pieces made in the central or southern part of the province, or more distant locales, which can then be pieced together on site like Lego blocks. About half of all of Alberta’s heavy cargo loads are headed to the oil sands region, and the numbers are set to increase, driven by industry plans to build new processing facilities and ramp up to 3.2 million barrels of production a day by 2020 from the current two million.

Already the pace has intensified. The province says that in 2006, there were 1,513 vehicles and loads that had a combined weight of more than 90 tonnes and received a special permit to travel north on Highway 63 to Alberta’s oil sands region. In 2012, that number hit 4,079.

Moving the giant pieces is a job that requires special training, a steady hand and patience. “Not everybody wants to be connected to something 24 feet wide, and a couple hundred thousand pounds behind them, while navigating oncoming traffic,” said Keith Guiochet, vice-president of operations for the transport division of Mammoet, a major player in Alberta’s heavy transport services sector.

To manage the heavy demands of the energy industry, the Alberta government has adopted policies to allow for the free flow of loads deemed oversized and overweight – and impractical or uneconomical to divide – while also taking other traffic, and wear and tear on the province’s roads and bridges, into consideration.

The province’s transportation department has long been designing the province’s bridges for heavier loads, and all new bridges are designed to carry vehicles 30 per cent heavier than the bridge standard used in other provinces. In December, Fort McMurray’s Athabasca Bridge – designed for heavy loads up to 1,000 tonnes and featuring an automated de-icing fluid spray system – saw all five of its lanes dedicated to northward-bound traffic, most of it headed to oil sands projects.

“Sometimes these things are so heavy they require one or more pull trucks, and one or more push trucks,” said Kim Durdle, director of the province’s transport engineering branch.

Alberta has built its transportation system with the needs of the gigantic loads in mind. High-load bypasses are built to go around interchanges, roundabouts are designed to allow large loads to get through – often by driving over the curbs, islands and medians – and roadside signs in the path of large loads are designed to be removable. RCMP escorts accompany the largest loads, which tend to move in the winter, when the ground is frozen and the pavement can best withstand the weight.

In order to accommodate high loads going through Fort McMurray, municipal crews swivel the lights away from Highway 63, the main route to the oil sands, almost every morning between 2 and 4 a.m. “It’s pretty continuous,” said Rob Billard, roads manager for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes Fort McMurray.

But Fort McMurray is not the only Alberta community that swivels its lights out of the way for the heavy loads. Six days a week at 4 a.m., municipal crews from the 22,000-person community of Fort Saskatchewan – just northeast of Edmonton – perform the same ritual. Modules manufactured around Calgary, Red Deer and Edmonton all travel through the small city on their way to the oil sands. The massive parts for the $8.5-billion Sturgeon Refinery in nearby Redwater – the first refinery built in Canada in decades – will also travel through Fort Saskatchewan.

With thousands of shift workers travelling to nearby industrial sites alongside the heavy loads on many mornings, Mayor Gale Katchur said traffic often grinds to a halt in the small community.

“We embrace our industry,” Ms. Katchur said. “We don’t mind putting up with a little bit of traffic.”

Follow on Twitter: @KellyCryderman

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