The Superstack That Binds Us

As the tallest chimney in the western hemisphere and the second largest in the world, the Sudbury Superstack is a mining, engineering and cultural marvel. Standing 1,250 feet tall, it is a symbol of Ontario’s proud industrial history. Long before I became a structural engineer, I was immersed in intriguing facts told by a humble superstack constructor, my grandfather – a superstack scaler.

As the proud grandson of Lucien Cormier (1921-2002), I understood that the Superstack was an unparalleled engineering achievement. His work on the Superstack began after a career as a farmer and carpenter in Nédélec, Quebec. Leaving his dairy farm and family behind with a hope to gain work building the Superstack, my grandfather went to Sudbury, Ontario. In 1969, Lucien was hired by the International Nickel Company (INCO) and began work on constructing the Superstack. After working for INCO for a year, Lucien advised his family to come, visit and consider relocating to Sudbury, which they eventually did. Lucien played a critical role in fostering a more sustainable human and natural environment for the city of Sudbury. As a superstack constructor, he supported the great chimneys development and contributed to the goal of diffusing sulfuric gases and other chemical byproducts caused by the smelting process.

I was proud of my grandfather’s legacy of constructing the Superstack, which led me to a pursue a career in engineering and construction. Once hearing stories of previous workers building the Stack at inches per hour; I knew that working on the Superstack would remain one of my lifelong dreams. However, stories of crews climbing to make over 624 adjustments every hour as the 200-ton tower and platform was raised on 52 adjustable steel yokes that climbed jack-rods by double acting 5-ton hydraulic jacks, not only made me nervous but inspired me. The Superstack was designed to carry gases at 55 miles per hour at over 600 degrees Fahrenheit, vital steps were taken to ensure the success of the environmental operation, including twelve monitoring stations placed at strategic points throughout the flue system to determine dust burden, temperature and volume of gas flow.

The time came for me to answer my generation’s superstack mission, and without a doubt, I answered that call in his honor. As an intermediate structural engineer at EXP, I was offered to participate in a two-year assignment with Vale (the company that purchased INCO) for the Stack Expansion project, comprising of preventative maintenance to the Superstack.

This involves maintenance on the interior concrete shell inspection from 1,250 feet to ground level and removal of the deteriorated concrete which poses the risk of falling material, liner steel work inspection and repairs, breach wall inspection and repairs, external concrete inspection and repairs and removal of the steel band around the top exterior of the Stack. There may also be a new bulkhead installed at 292 feet elevation to prevent the fall of materials. I would work closely with Vale’s Structural Engineer of Record in administering the Stack Repair project.

Now, 48 years after my grandfather scaled the Superstack for the very first time, it would be my turn to make my first climb.

I would do so safely harnessed with a mission to support the reduction of my generation’s environmental footprint. In doing so, two distant generations converged on the same project to address each of our generations’ needs. While my grandfather, Lucien Cormier, built the Superstack inch by inch, I continue to conduct repairs and maintenance to prepare for its potential decommissioning.

Today, the Superstack faces an uncertain fate. Two 450-foot smaller stacks, that would be more efficient and require far less energy to operate, are being constructed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40%. Despite the possibility of the Superstack’s decommissioning in the future, I remain grateful for each opportunity to carry on my grandfather’s legacy of scaling the Superstack to preserve a more environmentally sustainable future for the next generation. With every climb, repair, maintenance, and quality assurance check, I am reminded of the convergence between a town’s history and our family’s legacy. As for my grandfather and I, there will forever be the Superstack that binds us.

Steve Cormier, P.Eng. | Intermediate Structural Engineer | Sudbury, ON

*Originally published in EXP’s Expresso: Convergence