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Giant Spud Gunn Makes Its Way Across Wyoming

Mon, 01/20/2014 - 3:33pm
Benjamin Storrow, The Casper Star-Tribune

CASPER, Wyo. (AP) -- The Spud Gunn is 198 feet tall when standing. It is made of stainless steel and weighs 261 tons. It has almost nothing to do with spuds or guns — its true purpose is separating methane from other natural gases — but it was made in Idaho and slightly resembles one of those plastic devices teenage boys use to launch potatoes into the air, thus the name.

The Spud Gunn was built in Pocatello, and several weeks ago it was loaded onto two trailers, one in front of the other. The two trailers and the truck pulling them measure 425 feet from end to end. And so began this modern day wagon train's long and arduous journey from the land of potatoes to the land of Dorothy and Toto, where it is to be installed at a gas processing plant.

By Friday, the legend of the Spud Gunn was almost as big as its footprint on U.S. Highway 20/26, where it was consuming both eastbound and westbound lanes and traveling at the blistering pace of 50 miles a day.

Motorists between Shoshoni and Waltman stopped to snap photos on their cell phones. An employee at the port of entry in Casper reported a family member saw it the previous day in Riverton, where it took two hours to successfully navigate the town's streets. And Wyoming Department of Transportation officials prepared for its arrival at the Casper port of entry on the Salt Creek Highway late Saturday afternoon or early Saturday evening, where roads are to be closed and power lines moved to facilitate its passage.

Rumors abounded as to where it was headed. Some said Nebraska, others Gillette. Still others said it was Kansas via Gillette, which didn't seem to make much sense given that Gillette was north and Kansas south. But that was, in fact, the route.

"It is not easy finding a road where you can put a vessel like that," said Jim Travis, president of the company that manufactured the Spud Gunn, Eaton Metal Products, by way of explanation.

The gargantuan steel tube, known officially as a demethanizer tower, looked like it might achieve liftoff and head for outer space at any moment — or send a potato hurtling skyward. But on Friday afternoon it was still in the Earth's orbit, and no flying potato sightings had been reported. Instead, it was observed taking a breather at the Waltman Rest Area some 50 miles west of Casper.

Wyoming Department of Transportation officials said the Spud Gunn is scheduled to spend the night at the port of entry. An early start is on the docket for Sunday, when the Shoshoni Bypass is to be temporarily closed so the Spud Gunn can make its way out of town.

"Our idea is to get them in and out of here by Sunday," said Jeff Goetz, public relations specialist for WYDOT's second district.

But whether that will be possible remains to be seen. The Spud Gunn's departure from Casper will depend on the availability of Rocky Mountain Power crews to move power lines traversing the road.

The Wyoming Highway Patrol Super Loads/Overweight Loads Office requires permits for shipments the size of the Spud Gunn. The Star-Tribune was unable to obtain the details of the Spud Gunn's permit, or how many other permits like it the office has issued. Several calls to the Super Loads/Overweight Loads Office were met by an automated message with no voicemail. A Highway Patrol spokesman transferred a reporter to Super Loads/Overweight Loads Office's main number.

Travis said shipments like Spud Gunn are up, thanks to the increase in American oil and gas production.

Eaton manufactures such "pressure vessels" for refineries, power plants, dams and bridges, he said.

A pressure vessel like the Spud Gunn is akin to those "shiny" towers one sees at the Sinclair Refinery to the south of Casper, he said. Such vessels remove byproducts in the gas or oil stream and "help these refineries achieve whatever type of product they want to achieve."

He declined to name the buyer in Kansas, saying the customer wished to remain anonymous.

On Sunday, the Spud Gunn is scheduled to take Interstate 25 north before exiting onto Wyoming Highway 259 and heading toward Midwest. From there it goes onto "WY-387 to Wright, Newcastle and beyond .," as one Highway Patrol official wrote in an email to Goetz, who forwarded the correspondence to the newspaper.

Exactly what route it was taking to Kansas, no one could say. Goetz, the WYDOT spokesman, said to ask Eaton. Travis, the Eaton president, said to ask Mammoet, the company shipping it. Mammoet did not return a request for comment.

And so the Spud Gunn's travels continued, 50 miles every day.

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