BREWER, Maine — Loading a 200-ton refinery module onto an empty barge is a large-scale balancing act that rivals anything found at the circus, said Bob Germack, project manager for Hake Rigging Co., on Tuesday.

Hake, a division of Barnhart Crane & Rigging, today will load the first — and smallest — of four massive refinery modules onto the Columbia Boston, a 94-foot-by-354-foot black barge, docked at Cianbro’s Eastern Manufacturing Facility bulkhead.

The modules are heavy-duty industrial steel frames filled with pipes, pumps and electronics, and are the first of 53 ordered by Motiva Enterprises LLC for its $7 billion expansion of the Motiva Port Arthur Refinery in Texas.

“It’s a lot of engineering,” Germack said, adding that work on the plans began in October. The “engineered ballast plan” uses the fluctuating tides in the Penobscot River, which “run about 12 feet a day,” he said.

Pittsfield-based Cianbro Corp. is the parent company of Eastern Manufacturing Facility, and employs more than 400 skilled laborers at the site making modules, and an additional 70 at a pipe fabrication facility in Bangor. Work on the modules began in April 2008.

“We’ve been waiting for a long time for this day,” general manager Joe Cote said on Tuesday. “It’s the beginning” of many shipments that will leave Brewer in the years to come.

While the 200-ton module is loaded, water will be pumped into special hatches in the barge to counterbalance the vessel, Germack said.

“As we drive onto the stern, we’ll be pumping water into the bow,” he said. “We’re driving on with a lot of weight, that’s why we’ll be pumping a lot of water. That ramp needs to be fairly level when we drive on.”

The first module will be placed on the nose of the massive barge, and “As we get half way, we’ll start pumping water into the stern” as counterweight, Germack said.

The original plan called for the barge to be loaded at low tide, but engineers on Monday decided instead to use the rising tide, he said.

“We’ve come up with a better plan,” Germack said. By going with a rising tide, “there is less water we need to pump, and it will help us stay at the right elevations.”

Under the new plan, the barge ramps should be put on at about 1:30 p.m. with the loading scheduled to begin at 2 to 2:30 p.m. Loading the first module is expected to take about two hours.

The modules will be welded onto the barge with pre-fabricated clamps, he said. He added that the process, if all goes as planned, should take six to seven hours.

The modules will be lifted and carried to the vessel on 224-wheel hydraulic transport vehicles, Germack said.

The hydraulic transports are actually eight smaller units that are connected to handle the large modules. And the configuration of the transports will change depending on the size of what they’re moving, he said.

“We’ll be switching back and forth … depending on the size and weight of the modules” moved over the next 14 months, Germack said.

The first module that will be loaded is about half the size of the other three going on the first barge, said Germack, adding two of the larger modules will be broken into separate parts for the trip. The larger modules are 120 feet long, 60 feet wide and 50 feet tall when mounted on the 8- to 10-foot-high steel base transfer beams. The largest weighs 650 tons.

Once on the barge, which was specially fitted for the job of moving the modules, they will take 15 to 20 days to make the trip to the Gulf of Mexico. When they arrive in Texas, they will be rolled off and into place at the expanding refinery and must match up to “within one-eighth of an inch,” Alan Grover, Cianbro spokesman has said.

The Motiva refinery produces Shell Oil brand products, and once the expansion is complete in 2010 or 2011, the plant will be the largest crude oil processing plant in North America.

Cote said Cianbro hired Barnhart because the company has a great reputation.

“You always try to align yourself with the people that are the best at what they do,” he said.

The second module is scheduled to be loaded Friday and the vessel should ship out later this month.

nricker@bangordailynews.net

990-8190