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Mammoth project is 90 per cent done

Sturgeon County's biggest industrial project is now 90 per cent complete, says one of its proponents. Now comes the tough part. The Gazette toured the $8.5 billion Sturgeon Refinery last week for an update on the project's progress.
A view of Phase 1 of the NWR Sturgeon Refinery. The refinery construction project currently employs over 6
A view of Phase 1 of the NWR Sturgeon Refinery. The refinery construction project currently employs over 6

Sturgeon County's biggest industrial project is now 90 per cent complete, says one of its proponents. Now comes the tough part.

The Gazette toured the $8.5 billion Sturgeon Refinery last week for an update on the project's progress.

Whereas the refinery was mostly pilings and foundations when the Gazette last visited two years ago, it's now something of a subdivision in steel.

"Visually, we're 90 per cent complete," said Doug Bertsch, tour guide and vice-president of regulatory and stakeholder affairs for North West Redwater Partnership, the group behind the refinery.

"The second 90 per cent is still a ways to go."

Big metal city

The basic shape of the refinery is now mostly completed, Bertsch said. Residents shouldn't notice much change in the skyline in the months ahead, apart from a drop in the number of construction cranes (of which about 100 are now on site).

Crews have been welding together house-sized masses of pipes, girders and machinery called modules over the last two years, stacking them together Lego-like to build the refinery. All but 24 of the project's 1,100 modules are now in place or on site.

The refinery is now divided into several blocks, each of which contains the equipment for a different part of the refining process. Linking them all is a spine of shiny steel pipes that zigzags through the site from regional pipelines to the south to the storage tanks up north.

Sausage-shaped reactors now stretch 100 metres tall from within boxy tangles of girders and pipes, surrounded by dirt roads complete with traffic signs. The big concrete UFO landing pads the Gazette saw on its last visit now support about 20 chocolate-brown storage tanks, each the size of a small office building and ringed with curved staircases.

There are about 6,000 workers on site during the day right now and about 1,000 at night, Bertsch said. About 70 per cent of them take the bus to work, which drives around the site and drops them off at whatever part of the plant they're working on. There are so many people on site at any one time that they have to ban cars from certain areas during the day for safety reasons.

The composition of that workforce has shifted since the start of construction, Bertsch said. Whereas early days saw more civil contractors and carpenters to build concrete forms, now you have more ironworkers to weld pipes and modules together. Electricians and insulators will be in demand as the refinery moves into its final stretch.

Next steps

If all the work so far was like building the outside of a house, the next phase is about the insides, and it's the toughest part, Bertsch said.

Crews now have to wrap solid insulation and heating wire around hundreds of kilometres of pipe so they can heat the bitumen and keep it fluid, he said – bitumen is normally as thick as cold peanut butter. They also have to install thousands of sensors and remote triggers to control the refinery, each of which must be tested individually.

Once they flush any explosive gas out of the pipes, crews should be ready to start refining bitumen by late next year, Bertsch said. When the refinery becomes operational, the workforce will drop to about 300 permanent employees plus a few hundred contractors for maintenance.

North West will have paid out about $2.5 billion in wages at the end of this first phase of the refinery, most of which will have been spent in the Edmonton region, Bertsch said. The refinery itself should produce about $15 million a year in property taxes for Sturgeon County when complete. The refinery's recycling efforts (which have diverted about 98 per cent of its construction waste from the landfill) raised about $100,000 last year for charities such as the Sturgeon Foundation.

The company has yet to decide if it will build the next two phases of the project.

Questions or concerns about the refinery can be directed to Bertsch at [email protected]


Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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