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Frigid Weather Couldn’t Slow Oil Sands Road Development

A large John Deere 350 excavator comes to the rescue in breaking up frozen ground.

Tue February 10, 2015 - National Edition
Dale Mickle

Canada’s oil sands are extremely inaccessible, mostly because of the muskeg that surrounds it. Muskeg is soft and marshy ground, which makes it very difficult to travel on or through, much less build a road across. In some areas, the muskeg can be as deep as 15 ft. (4.5 m). This causes all kinds of problems for anyone trying to reach the oil sands production sites, as well as for those trying to build access roads to those sites. Because of the muskeg, many of the roads in the area are constructed using matting for support and stability.

Paradox Access Solutions Inc. is a road-building company based in St. Albert, Alberta, Canada, that specializes in building access roads, both temporary and permanent, for the energy companies working in the oil sands area north of Edmonton. Last winter, the company was contracted to construct a permanent road for Meg Energy, one of the oil sands producers.

“We were widening an old road that was more like a cow trail and turning it into a big industrial road,” said Marc Breault, president of Paradox. “It had to be ready for the spring.”

For this particular road project, the company brought in a brand new product called Neoweb, which is a honeycomb sand-containment membrane used to traverse very soft, marshy ground. The geocell product, made up of small 6- to 8-in. (15 to 20 cm) pockets, can withstand temperatures ranging from -58 to 122 F (-50 to +50 C), which is important when you consider that the oil sands get extremely cold in the winter. Once the product is placed on the ground, the pockets are packed with sand and gravel to form the road. Though sand is a very loose material that doesn’t ordinarily work well for roads, it becomes very firm and tight when packed into the honeycomb pockets.

Paradox made all the necessary arrangements to build the requested road, and Meg Energy agreed to supply free-flowing aggregates (sand and gravel material) to fill the Neoweb. It looked like everything was going to run smoothly, but then winter set in. The temperature dropped below the freezing level in mid-November, and the sand and gravel material began to freeze into lumps the size of boulders.

“Boulders won’t fit in those little pockets,” Breault said. “But in this remote location, it was the best material available. So I had to either come up with a solution or postpone the project until spring.”

Finding the Right Solution

Postponement wasn’t something Breault was willing to consider, so he went to work on a solution. While attending ConExpo-Con/AGG in 2011, he had seen an ALLU screener crusher bucket processing attachment in action. The easy-to-control bucket is designed to perform cost-effectively on demanding job sites and is perfect for use in rough terrains where stationary machines are unable to go. Buckets are available in a multitude of sizes weighing from 2,072 to 9,127 lbs. (940 to 4,140 kg) with screening areas ranging from 0.60 to 3.35 sq. yds. (.5 to 2.8 sq m).

Breault thought the screener crusher bucket might be exactly what was needed to solve the frozen material problem, so he made a call to one of his John Deere representatives and asked him to hunt it down.

“We checked out the specs and confirmed that it was able to crush and break up frozen gravel,” Breault said. So, the company purchased an ALLU DH4-17/60 screener crusher bucket and a large John Deere 350 excavator to operate the attachment.

The company’s suppliers had never installed a crusher bucket before, so there was a slight learning curve involved when it arrived in early December.

“Once we got it going, the thing was just a gem,” Breault said. “All in all, the ALLU screener crusher bucket was amazing. It kept production running smoothly and on time. We were able to crush the frozen gravel and sand in just about the same loading time as free-flowing material.”

Paradox kept the processing attachment working all winter with great results.

“This new style of road building created a challenge for us, and ALLU was right there to help us solve the problem,” Breault said. “This is the first time we’ve gotten into a crushing bucket. We were a little nervous about whether it would work or not, but I’m very impressed. It turned our job into a success by providing a solution. Without the ALLU bucket, we’d have never been able to successfully solve the problem.”

What surprised Breault, however, was the attention the bucket garnered from everyone who saw it in operation. Meg Energy had other contractors working in the oil sands at the same time the road was being built, and the bucket quickly caught their attention. No one had seen a crusher bucket in use in the area, except for handling the mixing/blending of materials. Seeing it used in the capacity in which Paradox was using it was a first for everyone.

“When we showed up with this machine, all the contractors were lined up wanting to get a look at it,” Breault said. “Before long, we were actually filling their trucks with crushed gravel. They wanted to know where we got it.”

Once spring arrived and everything thawed, Paradox no longer needed the screener crusher processing attachment for frozen material. Instead of parking it until next winter the company planned to rent it out to contractors who need it for summertime work.

“An entrepreneur doesn’t leave his equipment sitting around,” Breault said. “We’ll find a solution to keep it going. Winter applications are very hard on equipment, but the ALLU bucket came through strong. We’ll use it aggressively again next winter, but for now, we’ll put it to work doing the easy stuff in the summer.”

For more information, call 800/939-2558 or visit

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