By Keith Norbury

The $10.7 billion Site C hydroelectric dam project in northeastern B.C. entered its third year of construction this summer with more than 3,000 workers on the job. They include more than 700 heavy equipment operators, more than 300 carpenters and scaffolders, about 75 ironworkers, and some 70 crane operators. Photos on the Site C website show dozens if not hundreds of gargantuan pieces of equipment moving earth and erecting structures on the site, which straddles the Peace River at Fort St. John. Many of the cranes, trucks and excavators had to be transported to Site C, along with materials to build the powerhouse, substation structure, and ATCO trailers for 1,600 units of workforce housing.

This summer Vancouver-based Apex Specialized Rigging & Moving delivered six 83-tonne transformers to a Site C substation. But those are tiny compared to the turbines and other components that are still to arrive. “Most of the big stuff is yet to come,” said John Brise, operations manager for Apex.

Port of Belledune 50 Years

Site C construction started in the summer of 2015 and is scheduled for completion in 2024. The third dam and generating station on the Peace River, Site C will have a capacity of 1,100 megawatts and produce enough electricity to power 450,000 homes. B.C.’s provincial government, then with the Liberal party in power, approved the project in 2014. After the New Democrats gained power in 2016, they grudgingly agreed to continue with the Site C project. That was despite having campaigned against it in the May election and over the objections of the three-member Green party caucus with whom the NDP had forged a power-sharing agreement. But the B.C. Utilities Commission had issued a report warning that it would cost $4 billion to cancel the project and result in 10 per cent higher electricity bills.

A long time coming

Proposed as far back as the 1950s, Site C has in recent years generated a lot of controversy. That includes from environmentalists, First Nations, and farmers concerned that it would flood farmland and alienate traditional territories. Proponents have argued that it would produce clean power that doesn’t generate carbon emissions. B.C. Green Party leader Andrew Weaver, a University of Victoria climate scientist, used to support Site C for that reason.

While plenty of criticism of Site C persists, work on the project is proceeding apace. That includes installing those aforementioned six transformers, which were shipped from South Korea and arrived at Fraser Surrey Docks near Vancouver, from where they were transferred by rail to Septimus, a siding about 20 kilometres from the south side of Site C, Mr. Brise said. “And we did the transload from rail by jack and slide, and then offloaded off our trailer onto the pad with jack and slide as well,” Brise said, explaining later that “instead of using a crane, you jack the item up and then slide it on the rails.”

Apex then transported the transformers, one at a time, from the siding to Site C, using a 16-wheel single drop heavy-duty low bed trailer towed by a “very heavy-duty” Kenworth C500 truck. The moves required a crew of five, including truck driver, riggers, and the operator of a Cormach folding boom truck-mounted crane to set up the gear. The turbine parts are “the big chunk that’s left,” Mr. Brise said. That’s also a transportation contract Apex is hoping to win.

Apex, formerly called Apex Industrial Movers, did a high-level transportation report for the manufacturer of the turbines, Mr. Brise confirmed. However, he wasn’t at liberty to talk about that because the contractor, Voith Hydro Inc., hasn’t “let the contract on transport of the turbines.”

BC Hydro, the provincial government crown corporation building the Site C dam, has awarded the turbine contract to Voith Hydro. According to BC Hydro’s quarterly progress report on Site C for April to June 2018, Voith “continues the assembly and welding of embedded turbine components in its temporary manufacturing facility on the right bank at site.” Voith’s factory in São Paulo, Brazil “will supply the majority of turbine generator components, and has produced several of the cast steel parts for the first turbine, followed by machining,” the report noted.

A glance at a map suggests that shipping those turbines through Houston, Texas, from Brazil would be most direct route to Site C. The current schedule calls for the turbine installation in the powerhouse to begin during the summer of 2020, BC Hydro says. “I am by no means an expert on international ocean freight, but it does depend on where ships naturally go,” Mr. Brise said. “I know that a lot of the transformer type freight comes in on vessels to the port of Vancouver, and if it’s easy to get from the port of Vancouver to Site C, then it’s probably more economical that way, rather than diverting a ship. If the ship was going to stop in Prince Rupert anyways, that may be attractive.”

Criticism of transport tendering process

Jan Beringer, President and CEO of Calgary-based freight forwarders Rohde & Liesenfeld Canada Inc., criticized BC Hydro for leaving responsibility for shipping project cargo to overseas suppliers who might be tempted to route that cargo through U.S. ports. “There needs to be more control of freight on Canadian projects that allows for awareness and routing of cargo through Canadian ports rather than leaving it up to foreign suppliers to ship the cargo in any way they like,” Mr. Beringer said. BC Hydro did not respond to requests to its Site C media line for interviews and information. That was despite receiving emailed questions that the Site C project team had requested. Nevertheless, BC Hydro’s 602-page 2016 contract with Voith for the supply and installation of generators states, with some qualifications, that “the Contractor will be fully responsible for all transportation and transportation logistics of the Equipment to the Site, including for all risks and costs associated with such transportation.” Mr. Brise also indicated that is the way it works: “As far as I understand it, it’s entirely up to the manufacturer to get its equipment to the site,” he said.

Mr. Beringer has problems with that. “Doing that method of purchasing really makes it difficult for any one logistics company to have visibility of what’s actually moving,” he said. It also makes it difficult for ports to get involved. “If it comes into a Canadian port, a Canadian trucking company will ultimately move the materiel to the site,” Mr. Beringer said. “But the visibility of when it’s coming and how it’s being shipped and whether you have any influence to ship it into a West Coast port like Prince Rupert or Stewart, you don’t have that control. It’s being controlled overseas.” Shipping through B.C.’s northern ports offers significant advantages to shippers, he said. For one thing, they are a lot closer to Asia where much of the cargo originates. “You can be in those ports from Asia in as little as 14 days, whereas going into Houston, you’re looking at more like 30 days on the ocean,” Mr. Beringer said. The Asia-Houston route also involves transiting the Panama Canal. Prince Rupert and Stewart are also much closer by land to Site C than U.S. ports or even Vancouver.

Project moves appear sparse

Ted Pickell, Chair and CEO of Stewart World Port, said he’s not aware of the port handling anything for Site C so far. But he would welcome the opportunity. “We’ll handle anything for a buck,” Mr. Pickell said by phone from his corporate office in Fort Saint John about three kilometres from Site C. “I’m not exaggerating, it’s just down the hill.”

Port of Prince Rupert didn’t respond to a request for comment. At Port Vancouver, senior account representative Doug Mills wasn’t able to offer specifics about Site C project cargo because the port authority doesn’t operate the terminals. However, he presumed that because Site C has been in operation for a few years and Vancouver is the country’s top gateway for import cargo, “I’m going to assume, yeah, that we’ve been moving components, steel etc., for that project.”

Dave Earle, President of the B.C. Trucking Association, said he hasn’t heard anything about association members carrying big loads to Site C. “I do know that a lot of traffic going to the oil patch still remains going through Houston,” Mr. Earle said. He attributed that to various factors, including limited space at breakbulk terminals, and obstructions like highway and rail overpasses on the corridor linking Vancouver with northern B.C.

The trucking association has been participating in a project cargo working group with the B.C. government for a few years to establish a pre-approved project corridor for loads of up to 125 tonnes. Mr. Earle said a firm hired to perform some of the scanning work encountered technical difficulties last year, which has delayed implementation. “We remain optimistic,” Mr. Earle said. “But it’s coming to point now where we wonder exactly how much business are we losing?”

Mr. Mills, who also serves on the project cargo working group, confirmed that a technical glitch has delayed the pre-approved corridor. But he said he expects it will be approved and announced soon. He also noted that a company can still obtain a permit to move large loads and that the process has “sped up immensely” because the Ministry of Transportation now has much better data. “So in effect, we have a semi-working corridor now,” Mr. Mills said. Besides that, many project cargoes destined for Site C are heavy but compact, Mr. Mills pointed out. “I think most of the cargo is going to be lower than the prescribed requirement for overheight,” Mr. Mills said.

LNG Canada receiving more buzz

As noted earlier, Fraser Surrey Docks handled the six transformers that Apex unloaded at Septimus. Unfortunately, Canadian Sailings’ contact at Fraser Surrey Docks didn’t respond to an interview request. Also not responding was the Calgary-based LaPrairie Group of Companies, even though photos of its cranes, trucks, and trailers feature prominently of the Site C website. Those machines are doing some heavy work. They include a crawler crane installing conveyor equipment on the south bank in January 2018; a truck and trailer mobilizing equipment for the turbines and generators contractor in February 2018; and a Liebherr crane working at the south bank batch plant in September 2016.

By October 2016, Calgary-based ATCO Structures & Logistics moved in pre-fabricated workforce housing for 1,600 Site C employees. BC Hydro had awarded ATCO an eight-year $470 million contract to design, build, operate, and maintain the housing project. Neither BC Hydro nor ATCO responded to questions about how the housing units were transported to Site C.

John Stevens, president of CEO of Acheson, Alta.-based Entrec Corporation, said his company has moved in some workforce housing to Site C. Entrec has also brought in smaller equipment such as rough terrain and crawler cranes. But he doesn’t consider any of that to be project work because it will eventually have to be hauled out. And none of that compares to Entrec’s specialty, which is hauling huge modules to the Alberta oil sands. “It’s not a needle-mover for us whatsoever,” Mr. Stevens said of Site C. What he expects to have a much greater impact is the recently announced $40 billion Canada LNG project in Kitimat. “I think that’s a way bigger story, even for Fort Saint John and Dawson Creek. It’s amazing actually,” Mr. Stevens said.

Mr. Mills noted that when he attended the Breakbulk Americas Conference in Houston in early October, there was a lot of buzz about LNG Canada, which has just been announced. But not so much buzz about Site C. Mr. Pickell also expressed more enthusiasm for the LNG Canada project, saying “We’re already quoting some cargo for the LNG.”