Jurong Rock Caverns: Singapore's S$950 million dollar hole in the ground

Jurong Rock Caverns: Singapore's S$950 million dollar hole in the ground

Singapore's own Aladdin's Cave lies 130 meters beneath the Banyan Basin. When completed, the Jurong Rock Caverns will be southeast Asia's first underground oil storage facility
Jurong Rock Caverns
When completed, the first phase of JRC will include eight kilometers of tunnels and five caverns, and will contain nine storage galleries, each big enough to take in water from more than 64 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

I’m trapped in a cage that is rapidly descending 130 meters into a hole in the ground. 

Fourteen of us of us are packed into a space that would comfortably hold seven. Lights flicker by as the construction lift slowly descends deeper into the ground. It’s a very long three-and-a-half minute trip.

Loud mechanical noises make me wonder if this contraption has been safety-tested, and also make it impossible to hear the lift operator who’s saying something to me. I hope it’s not important.

As we go lower and lower, the air becomes thicker and the natural light from above fades. The only saving grace is an old fan on top of the cage that occasionally refreshes the dank air.

The cage hits bottom with a jerk; the door swings open. Filing out of the wire crate we step into a subterranean moonscape: a long tunnel with grey walls that shine like daylight under harsh construction lights. If not for these, it would be pitch black.

Saltwater from the ocean above drips freely onto us. Under foot is a mess of rock, water and muck, mixed into a grey soup by the daily routine of heavy construction machinery and hundreds of workers moving back and forth.

The floor is covered with pieces of what’s called Jurong-formation sedimentary rock that was blasted and scraped. It’s a huge space and appears to go on and on.

Jurong Rock Caverns Ammonium nitrate is used to blast away rock, with each of the several explosions a day extending the cavern by up to five meters. The walls have a smooth appearance, having been sprayed with shotcrete, a liquefied cement mixed with steel fiber and blasted onto the walls with high-pressure hoses. Huge steel bolts are driven into the walls every meter or so, it’s said, to minimize the chance off collapse.

The most overpowering sensation in the tunnel is the smell of ammonia. One of our minders corrects me, “Ammonium nitrate, to be exact.

"They were blasting a new tunnel last night and the smell from the explosives is still down here,” he explains, assuring me that the levels have been tested and are safe for us to breath.

I’m leery and try to breath as little as possible for a while. That turns out not to be a practical strategy and, after a few minutes, I give in and breathe deeply. I think about the two shifts of 100 workers each who spend 12 hours a day down here -- what a bizarre life that must be.

Jurong Rock CavernsHow's the air down there? Welcome to the Jurong Rock Caverns (JRC). You probably have not heard about this S$950 (US$761) million dollar hole in the ground, and you will most certainly never see it in person.

Located underneath the Banyan Basin, off Jurong Island on the western coast of Singapore, it’s a heavy industrial area with military-grade security. Looking around one sees oil rigs being built and oil refinery and storage facilities everywhere; heavy trucks roar and rattle past.

Within the next two years, the JRC will be completed. It will then be filled with about nine million barrels of crude oil and other petro products, making it the first oil storage cavern in southeast Asia.

Tankers will dock overhead and a series of pipes will either conduct the oil out of the ships and into the ground or up from the storage caverns into the waiting ships, to be transported elsewhere. Pipes will also run to and from the adjacent Jurong Island refineries.

The first phase of JRC has already exceeded the original budget of S$700 million. Used for many years in Korea, Japan and the United States, Singapore is now getting in on the act subterranean oil depots. JTC, the group that’s behind this project, says the caverns will save valuable above-ground land and further Singapore’s position as a regional petrochemical refining and storage location.

The city-state is already one of the world’s largest bunkering ports and oil trading centers. But with land at a premium, David Tan, the Assistant CEO in charge of the project, says the JRC will save some 60 hectares of space above ground that can be used for other pursuits.

“This is a commercial venture,” says Tan.

We walk down tunnel after tunnel, ranging in length from about 200 meters to 750 meters, to look at the ongoing work. These service tunnels are massive at 12 meters high and 12 metres wide. But, the actual storage caverns will be twice their size. The temperature so far underground is warm and constant, but the humidity and our constant walking makes it easy to break a sweat.

Toward the end of the tour, another guide announces, with a slightly alarmed look, that their monitors indicate low-oxygen content levels in the tunnel and that we should immediately start heading back.

This turns out to be a very effective way to get our group of journalists to return to the surface.

Glenn van Zutphen is a Singapore-based freelance writer, media consultant and founder of VanMedia Group. A working journalist for 25 years, he's a former CNN International anchor and producer. 

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