By Keith Norbury

From the Lorneville Mechanical Contractors Ltd. shop on the west side of Saint John, N.B., to the Irving Oil Refinery on the city’s east side is less than 20 kilometres by road. But the route has a lot of obstructions, not the least being a bridge across the Saint John River. And that meant Lorneville Mechanical couldn’t bid on jobs to build giant modules at the nearby refinery — even though the fabrication company had the wherewithal to make them — until this year. Making the move possible was the opening of the $7.1 million Spruce Lake Barge terminal on Bay of Fundy’s Lorneville Harbour just a few hundred metres away from Lorneville Mechanical. In April 2018, a pair of 120,000 cubic feet, 200-tonne refining modules built at the fabrication facility departed the new barge terminal for the refinery.

Styve Dumouchel, President of Lorneville Mechanical, told Canadian Sailings that the barge terminal was just a small but nevertheless crucial ingredient enabling his company to bid on and win the refinery module contract. “These projects are long term projects,” Mr. Dumouchel said. “You bid on them and build them. Having the facility is important but it’s a very small portion of the whole project. However, without the facility we couldn’t do the project.”

A chicken and egg thing

While the barge terminal hasn’t been used since that inaugural project, Mr. Dumochel expects his company will eventually put it to more good use. In the past, his company has lost out on opportunities in its own backyard — to shops in Texas, Spain, and China — because it had no way to move the modules. “So it’s important to have it,” Mr. Dumouchel said. “It’s a chicken and egg thing. You need it there to enable you to bid – without it, you can’t move the manufactured components, so there is no point submitting a bid.”

The new barge facility, and its role in moving the modules to the refinery is among the initiatives being promoted by the New Brunswick Modular Fabrication & Project Cargo Partnership, which was formed two years ago to spread the word about the province’s modular fabrication capabilities and abilities to ship those giant modules almost anywhere.

Ian McCoy, Director of Investment Attraction with Enterprise Saint John, said the partnership started as a research effort to identify New Brunswick’s competitive advantages, what types of projects the province should pursue, and where it should spend money trying to go after them. “Instead of shooting with a shotgun, we should use with a rifle and be a little bit more targeted in the way we go after things,” Mr. McCoy explained.

The initial effort included building a website,, and hiring an engineer to promote the province’s capabilities to EPCMs (engineering, procurement, construction and management companies). “We know there are different ways to get this done, but we were just trying to create awareness that New Brunswick is uniquely located on the East Coast of Canada with access to New England and also to the rest of Canada,” Mr. McCoy said. Enterprise Saint John, a development agency funded by five regional municipalities in Greater Saint John, is just one member of the partnership. Also involved are Port Saint John, Port of Belledune on Chaleur Bay in the north of the province, Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, Opportunities New Brunswick, and Develop Saint John (formerly Saint John Industrial Parks).

Ports have own modular facilities

Each of the two ports has its own “state-of-the art” modular fabrication facility, notes The 24,000 square feet Port Saint John facility has 65 feet of clearance and a “mega door” 48 feet high and 68 feet wide. Its floor is designed for a maximum “surcharge load” of 1,000-foot pounds squared. An extensive paved space outside the building is “available for project staging, offers easy access to rail and road” and connects to a 119,705 square feet “general purpose facility for storage and operation.”

Belledune’s “ultra-modern” 40,000 square feet modular fabrication building also boasts 65 feet of clearance, as well a pair of 20-tonne overhead cranes. The port also has open space and highway access.

The partnership website posted case studies of recent modular fabrication projects at both ports. For example, Man Diesel & Turbo Canada Ltd. chose the Belledune facility to build electrical module enclosures and install gensets and auxiliary equipment destined for Nunavut. Port Saint John, meanwhile, provided staging “for suction anchors, steel reels holding wires, flexible risers and umbilicals for the (cancelled) Neptune LNG receiving project off the coast of Massachusetts.”

Paula Copeland, Director of Communications and corporate social responsibility for Port Saint John, said that while the Neptune project was eight years ago, it remains “a good example of how multiple parties come together to work on a project in our port.” More recently, Port Saint John’s modular fabrication facility, completed in 2017, worked for several months on a tidal turbine that has since been deployed. This summer, the port’s Long Wharf handled import cargo destined for a new wind energy farm in eastern New Brunswick. “There are several industries in the collective with small opportunities and having a partnership allows us to collectively promote all capabilities within a single supply chain for modular fabrication and project cargo handling in New Brunswick. This is an opportunity for a small region to promote on a global level,” Ms. Copeland said by email. She added that Saint John was recently designated as a Foreign Trade Zone Point, making it “easier than ever to engage with international businesses, and to reach international markets.”

Belledune reports cargo record

Port of Belledune didn’t respond to a request for updates on its involvement with the partnership and its project cargo business. However, it announced in a recent news release that it broke its monthly tonnage record this July with 402,172 tonnes handled. The port was also on track to challenge its annual record of 2.3 million tonnes in 2009. How much of that is project cargo, the new release didn’t say. However, in the port’s Spring 2017 CargoFlex newsletter, CEO Denis Caron said the modular sector was one of the port’s five growth sectors.

Meanwhile, Port Saint John handled 33,519 tonnes of breakbulk in 2017, up from only 5,956 the year before. Ms. Copeland noted that project cargo is a small part of Saint John’s volumes — 3,220 tonnes in 2017. However, it is showing “steady growth” — with 6,140 tonnes in 2018 to the end of August, compared with just 956 tonnes for all of 2016, the year before partnership was launched.

The Spruce Lake Barge Facility doesn’t have a track record. Brian Irving, Director of Sales and Assets with Develop Saint John, isn’t at all concerned that the facility hasn’t received much use yet. “For example, I think the labour profile on the two processor units that went over to Irving is over $1.5 million,” said Mr. Irving, who is no relation to the industrialist Irving family that owns the refinery. “Just talk about putting a million and a half in the jeans of the blue collar workforce. Those guys spend money.”

Develop Saint John, the real estate arm of the City of Saint John, owns the Spruce Lake terminal. In its earlier incarnation as the Saint John Industrial Parks, Develop Saint John had built up a bankroll of robust sales, said Mr. Irving. That money plus $3 million contributions each from the provincial and federal governments meant the city didn’t have to put any new cash into the barge terminal, which came in under its $7.5 million budget.

Potential to employ hundreds

Founded in 1977, Lorneville Mechanical typically employs about 50 to 70 people, but can ramp that up to 300 for a large project, Mr. Dumouchel said. It has a 15-acre site that includes a 75,000 square feet indoor space. The company also operates a pipe spooling shop on the other side of town.

“What led up to wanting the Spruce Lake Barge facility is that we had lost lots of opportunities in the early 2000s for projects within our own backyard that we just could not bid because we didn’t have the facility,” Mr. Dumouchel said. The company specializes in building modules for oil and gas and other energy markets, such as refining and power plants, as well as mining operations. It also does some work on pulp mills, although he noted, “not a lot of pulp mills being built these days.” Now he is hoping that his company will have a crack at big jobs along the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S., as well in the Canadian arctic. “We have to be realistic. We’re not going to bid on faraway projects, let’s say, in Asia,” Mr. Dumouchel said.

Warren Long, who was the project lead for the partnership until September 2018, said Dumouchel’s company can compete for projects so long as it can demonstrate to the major players that it has the experience and capability to build to the quality required. “And then, of course, we’ve got some way to transport it,” Mr. Long said.

Indoor fabrication preferred

Building modules indoors is the preferred method because productivity is many times greater and more cost-effective than when building outdoors in often inclement weather. “The general rule of thumb is bigger is better if you can do it in a controlled environment,” said Mr. Long, a semi-retired professional engineer and project management professional who still has his credentials. “And a controlled environment means in a factory or in a warehouse or whatever. You also have to have a big enough building to be able to build these things and then move them.”

The Spruce Lake Barge Facility opens up new markets for Lorneville Mechanical. Mr. Long even floated the notion of bidding on opportunities in Korea. But he doubted that bidding on jobs in the Alberta oil patch would be attainable because dams on the St. Lawrence Seaway would restrict the size of the units. Project cargo destined for Alberta does go through Houston, Texas. However, Mr. Long noted that routes from Houston north pose many logistical challenges in the form of railway bridges and highway overpasses — not to mention load limits that vary from state to state. “That’s why marine modular is so attractive because you can put a lot of stuff on a module and put one or two tugs on it, and away you go, right across the ocean,” said Mr. Long, who previously worked for Irving Oil. Mr. Irving said a good job has been done of building the necessary infrastructure in the province. However, there’s a risk it could be for nought without thoughtful marketing efforts.

“You can’t just market. You can’t shoot ducks when they don’t fly,” Mr. Irving said. “So we really have to be working closely with industry partners to make sure they’re at the table when these megaprojects are being conceived.” To that end, the partnership recently issued a new request for proposals to support efforts “to investigate, develop and promote the establishment” of a modular fabrication and project cargo handling “centre of excellence” in the province.

Among the requirements the winning proposal will have to achieve are giving the task force a “thorough understanding” of the sector’s main participants, “a better understanding” of the sector’s logistics and supply chain in New Brunswick “at the subcontractor and supplier level,” and a list of all key contacts for all those companies “to be used as a tool by the industry partners.”

Mr. McCoy said the purpose of the latest RFP is to find a consultant “who can go do a market scan.” The deadline for the RFP was Sept. 30. He declined to say how many responses the RFP received. However, he did expect that the winning bid would be able to deliver the final report by its Nov. 30 deadline.

“But we’re not really limiting ourselves to anything,” Mr. McCoy said. “There’s a lot of modular construction going on in the oil and gas industry and the mining industry and many other industries,” Mr. McCoy said. “The green energy sector, with wind turbines, and tidal turbines, or whatever those things might be. If it can be built into a larger module, we want people to be aware that New Brunswick is another opportunity for them to do that type of work.”

Mr. Irving stressed that the partnership is a provincial initiative, with Belledune as a key player. “We didn’t want to pit ourselves against each other,” Mr. Irving said, adding that the goal is to publicize that the province not only has the capacity but “a serious history of social licence” supporting heavy industry and fabrication. “We really wanted to make sure we had a good united front.”