Q&A With K.C. Er (retired P.Eng.), Director of Infrastructure Development at Shanghai Construction Group (Canada) Corp.

K.C Tell us about your background.

I graduated with a bachelor of science in mechanical engineering from the University of Alberta in 1975. I am known for my tunneling expertise and was a pioneer who introduced and implemented the pipe relining and microtunneling technologies in Edmonton. A wealth of my experience was acquired in the construction of water and sewer mains using the open-cut and tunneling methods during my 32 years of service with the City of Edmonton. I have been involved with more than 50 km of sewer construction in Edmonton and provided design input and was involved with the construction of several phases of the LRT and major trunk sewers in Edmonton. Additionally, I have been a guest lecturer and mentored several graduate students in tunnel construction in Construction Engineering and Management at the Civil Engineering Department, University of Alberta, from 1999-2007. Currently, I am employed as the Director of the Infrastructure Department, Shanghai Construction Group (Canada) Corp., headquartered in Edmonton.

How did you get involved in the tunneling industry?

In 1975, the City of Edmonton Water and Sanitation Department was awarded the contract to construct the first phase of the LRT in downtown Edmonton. Due to the site constraints, I was hired to design several pieces of specialty equipment to support the LRT construction. The Alberta economy was booming between the mid-1970s to early-1980s. Edmonton had an influx of people migrating to service all sectors of the economy. The rapid growth resulted in major expansion of land development in Edmonton. At the peak, most of the land development was serviced by the private sector and a portion of the City of Edmonton in-house forces using the open-cut method. The remaining deeper sewers and water mains were all tunneled by the City crews. During this peak period, the City had five tunnel boring machines (TBM) working concurrently alongside several smaller tunnels excavated by hand. I was exposed to all aspects of tunneling, from planning, organizing, equipment procurement, TBM modifications, contract administration and overseeing the drainage infrastructure construction for the City of Edmonton.

You introduced pipe relining and microtunnelling methods to Edmonton. Describe that era.

In the 1980s, some of the infrastructure that was installed during the boom in the 1970s needed major rehabilitation and replacement. The pipe relining technology was at its infancy in Canada. Instead of replacing defective infrastructure by open cut, the City was keen to explore new trenchless technologies, which are more environmentally friendly and less intrusive. In 1987, I administered the City of Edmonton’s first pipe relining project, performed by Insituform. This is believed to be the first relining project in western Canada. It was a 200-mm sanitary sewer, approximately 110 m long.

In 1991, the City of Edmonton was planning to rehabilitate a sanitary sewer at the Laurier Heights neighborhood. The design called for “case boring,” approximately 1,000 m of 600-mm sewer. I got involved with the design review upon my return from a microtunneling conference in Osaka, Japan, and determined that this project was very suitable for microtunneling because of the size of the pipes, its depth and distance between manholes. A generic “trenchless” method of construction was subsequently specified. The City of Edmonton was planning on renting a microtunnel machine from either Soltau or Herrenknecht and constructing this portion of the sewer rehabilitation by in-house forces. As a result of political influences, I tendered and awarded Edmonton’s first microtunneling project to a private contractor in early 1992.

Describe the state of the Canada’s underground infrastructure.

In my opinion, the underground infrastructure, especially tunnels and utility tunnels that were constructed in the 20th century, have served their purpose and many of them are still in reasonably good condition. But many have exceeded their design capacity. Therefore, more tunnels with a larger diameter and longer length are required to meet today’s needs.

How does the Canadian market compare to the international market?

In my experience, the international marketplace has a century-old history of utilizing tunnels for underground infrastructure and utility needs. Tunneling and microtunneling are widely accepted in many international markets. The international market is mature and somewhat saturated. I am aware more tunnels were being constructed in Canada in recent years and there are many more being planned for the next few years. I have also noticed that more international tunneling contractors are competing in the Canadian marketplace. This could be an indication that some of the international market is drying up and Canada is the place for future tunneling.

How would you describe the state of the trenchless market in Canada?

Canada has several experienced contractors with proven and matured trenchless technologies capable of meeting both infrastructure renewal and new infrastructure installations in the Canadian marketplace. The engineers have gained more knowledge through education and experience and have developed design practices and specifications for trenchless installations. They are more comfortable and confident in recommending various trenchless options. Canada’s trenchless market is evolving. Much of the underground infrastructure is aging and reaching its design limits. With growth, space limitations and construction impact on the environment in mind, more municipalities are exploring trenchless installation options for their future infrastructure needs. Therefore, Canada should have a very bright trenchless market in the future.

Where do you see trenchless technology heading in the short term and long term in Canada?

In the short term, trenchless technology will continue to be the preferred option for infrastructure renewal and new infrastructure installations for growth in major municipalities, as many will face space limitations and concern with the environmental impact of construction on the communities.

In the long term, smaller municipalities will see the benefits of trenchless technologies and many will explore utilizing the trenchless technology installations to achieve their operational and maintenance objectives. Trenchless technologies will be used to renew and rehabilitate the majority of the aging infrastructure in Canada in the future.

What are a few of the notable projects of your career?

The aforementioned pipe relining and microtunneling projects that were the first for the City of Edmonton. I worked on Edmonton’s Light Rail Transit (LRT) tunnel from Central Station to Grandin Station. I was the City’s representative on the design team for the South LRT extension. I have been involved with both the rehabilitation and construction on portions of the new installation along all five of the major trunk sewers in Edmonton. The trunk sewers are SEST, NEST, WEST, CST and TUFS. I designed and successfully implemented a ground freezing option to enable excavation of a 52-m storm drop structure through an 11-m layer of quicksand. This is an area of expertise many of the contractors in the trenchless construction industry do not have.

There seems to be new factors influencing the tunneling market – urbanization, sustainability issues, projects related to a changing climate, private financing options. What role can underground construction have in building the future?

I am confident that underground construction will play a major role in building our future. Many people are unaware of the benefits that can be realized from tunneling, and how it can impact our daily lives. Many major municipalities have older sewer lines that carry the combined sanitary and storm sewers. This frequently results in combined sewer overflows (CSOs) during the rainy season, contaminating the river and adversely impacting the environment. As municipalities grow, the existing infrastructure does not have the capacity to handle the increased sanitary sewer flows, let alone storm sewer flows. Many municipalities are facing densification, where high rises and condominiums are being built to attract people to live in the core of the cities. The existing infrastructure can no longer support and sustain the growth within the urban centers.

Using the cut-and-cover method to renew and expand the infrastructure and to mitigate CSOs by separating the sanitary and storm sewer is not a viable option in densely populated municipalities. As a result of space limitations, as well as environmental and social impacts, municipalities are under pressure to find alternative methods. Therefore trenchless methods will be the most acceptable and feasible option.

Climate change has resulted in higher storm frequencies and intensities, resulting in many flash floods around the globe. Many municipalities are now constructing larger diameter and longer tunnels as conveyance and storage tunnels to minimize the flooding potential during the severe rain events.

An efficient public transportation is a key factor that will entice ridership. This will minimize traffic congestion and reduce air pollution as cities expand horizontally and vertically. Tunneling for public transportation will be increasing in areas where surface alignment is not feasible.

What is it about trenchless technology that excites you?

I’m excited because the benefits of trenchless technology are enormous in our daily lives, and many people have taken this for granted. It is nearly inconceivable that things such as tunneling that are out of sight, out of mind” can have significant contributions to the quality of our lives.

Sharon M. Bueno is managing editor of Trenchless Technology Canada and a contributing editor to TBM: Tunnel Business Magazine. This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of Trenchless Technology Canada.

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