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Hauling fuel is challenging but rewarding, driver says

CALGARY, Alta. - In the light of a pale sunrise on a cold October morning, razor wire and security cameras shine with a light coating of frost around the Imperial Oil fuel terminal on the eastern edge...


CALGARY, Alta. – In the light of a pale sunrise on a cold October morning, razor wire and security cameras shine with a light coating of frost around the Imperial Oil fuel terminal on the eastern edge of Calgary.

Inside their confines, fuel hauler Bob Sheane and his 88-foot tanker rig are hard at work.

Sheane is punching numbers on a computer console. Behind him, giant pill-shaped storage tanks, with holding capacities in the millions of litres, loom over the truck. The fuel inside them has been piped down the Prairie from oil refineries in Edmonton to this point, where Sheane steps in to pick up the load. He’s ordering 11,000 litres of gas and diesel into the five compartments of his Super B trailers, headed for service stations around the city.

It’s not a job for those who are easily spooked.

“If the fact that the fuel is a bomb bothers you, don’t haul it,” Sheane says. “Go haul lumber.”

At age 53, Sheane has been driving for Mantei’s Transport Ltd. for eight years. The family-owned and operated company has been in business for 40 years, and runs to nearly 400 regular destinations – mostly service stations. Its trucks are on the road night and day, seven days a week.

When Sheane’s tanker trailer is fully loaded, it’s relatively safe. But, empty as it is at this moment, the mixture of air and fumes inside the tank raises the danger of explosion to its highest point. Anything that can kick off a spark, from a cigarette to a cell phone, is not allowed inside the terminal fence.

Minutes later, his trailer now fully loaded, Sheane is squeezing past a long row of pickup trucks parked haphazardly next to a construction site before swinging out onto the freeway. He talks about the good, the bad and the ugly of hauling fuel inside a city of nearly a million people.

“Calgary has grown, and they haven’t got the road system to accommodate the number of cars, so it’s not fun every day, but if you can get past that, it’s a pretty good job.”

The best part of his job?

“Freedom,” he answers flatly, raising his eyebrows and glancing pointedly around the cab. “I don’t see my boss anywhere around here, do you?”

“Stress? Pffft.”

Sheane will make four trips today, back and forth between the fuel terminal and service stations in the suburbs.

He prefers a city route, because at the end of the day, he goes home to eat supper with his family, and sleeps in his own bed. But Mantei’s has jobs open for highway drivers, too. Right now, he thinks they’re about five drivers short.

“You got guys that like the city, and guys that like the highway. If everybody wanted to do the same job, there are some jobs that wouldn’t get done. So, it works,” he said.

“Guys who prefer the highway, a lot of the reason is they cannot handle city drivers. You still run into morons on the highway, but not as many.”

“The biggest fear I have is rear-ending someone and killing them, because they think I can stop like a car, and I can’t.” At 100 km/h, it takes longer than the length of a football field to stop, he points out.

“You get a four-wheeler that pulls in front of you, wants to turn right and slams on the blinders, then they’re dead…there’s nothing I can do.”

Sheane said familiar roads and daily routines could make it easy for his attention to wander, but don’t.

“What helps you stay focused are close calls. Driving around the city, they happen on a daily basis,” he said. “You have to be aware of everything that goes on around you.”

For a professional, that’s second nature, he believes.

“I guess the trucking industry is the same as any other business,” he said. “We have our share of drivers that I would say are less than professional. But the majority hauling fuel are pros.”

At the service station, Sheane marks out his working territory with orange safety cones. “When I’m on the lot, and I’m delivering fuel, I own the lot,” he says.

He then runs metal hose from taps on his trailers to the intake pipes of the station’s underground storage tanks. The hoses are heavy; “I don’t have to pay for a gym membership,” Sheane says.

This is the stage where Sheane made the worst error of his career with Mantei’s. A rookie, just three months on the job, he allowed a “mix.”

“I put the regular gas into the premium tank,” he says. “There’s no excuse.”

Eight years later, that memory still makes him cringe. But Mantei’s has strict procedures, that he has since followed religiously. Although it would be faster to hook up all the hoses at once, he doesn’t. Mantei’s policy is one tap at a time. Match the labels. Check the tags on the truck. Double check. Triple check.

“The chances of a mix are drastically reduced,” Sheane says.

While the fuel siphons through the hoses, Sheane walks over to stand beside a trio of narrow pipes rising out of the ground in a little-noticed corner of the gas station parking lot.

“This is the most dangerous part, right here,” he says. Heavy fumes are rushing out of the pipes, pushed out of underground tanks as the fuel pours in. The odor is overpowering.

Several years ago, Sheane was glancing at a similar set of vent pipes when he noticed a bus stop bench, less than six feet from the pipes. It was a bright sunny day, and he could see fumes pouring out of the pipes.

A guy sat down, and lit up a cigarette.

“My heart stopped,” Sheane said.

He called Mantei’s, and Mantei’s called the city transportation department. Within a week, the bus stop had been moved 50 feet down the road.

It’s that sort of concern, that vigilance on behalf of the public, that makes the behaviour of some gas station patrons hard to bear.

After the recent spikes in the price of gas, fuel haulers started getting “a lot more dirty looks” while delivering, Sheane says, even though they don’t control prices. “The consumer doesn’t understand it.”

And, more often at night than during the day, for some reason, drivers get annoyed if the tanker blocks their way to the pumps. Drunk, beligerent, or just tired, having to drive an extra 50 feet upsets them “more than you could ever imagine,” Sheane says.

That’s when he’s glad to have a tire iron handy.

“Some of our night guys have brandished it – they haven’t used it yet,” he said.

Sheane is looking down the road to retirement, but he doesn’t think he’ll get out of the business entirely. He’d like to spend his winters on the coast, away from the cold Prairie winds and icy roads.

But not completely. He thinks he’ll keep hauling fuel, at least in the summers, because the job is part of who he is.

“It keeps me young,” he said.


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