FORT MCMURRAY, A.B. — One person was taken to hospital in serious condition after an explosion and fire at Syncrude Canada’s Mildred Lake upgrader 40 kilometres north of Fort McMurray on Tuesday.
Syncrude spokesperson Will Gibson said the fire started shortly before 2:00 p.m. Paul Pomerleau was working at the Syncrude site when he said his coworkers outside heard a “big bang.” When he went to look, he saw “black smoke blowing up” before he was ushered into a lunch room to await evacuation.
Another worker, who asked not to be named, said he saw a “huge plume of black smoke” coming from Plant 13-1, which he said is a hydrotreating unit that involves the use of highly explosive hydrogen. The worker added that it was fortunate the fire seemed to have been controlled quickly, as otherwise “you could have a huge explosion.”
Alberta Health Services confirmed one person had been admitted to the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre in serious but stable condition. Syncrude said the fire had been isolated and brought under control by its firefighters just before 7 p.m. and that all personnel and contractors were to report for their night shifts as scheduled. The Wood Buffalo RCMP detachment confirmed the site was evacuated of non-essential staff just after the blast. Police shut down one lane of traffic on Highway 63 southbound. Buses arrived at the site to transport workers who did not have personal vehicles.
“The safety of the people at the site is Syncrude’s top priority,” said Gibson. A team from the Alberta Energy Regulator was at the scene.
The smoke from the fire and prevailing wind direction prompted the Fort McKay First Nation to tell residents to stay inside, keep doors and windows closed, and turn on any air purifiers. “If you suffer from chronic lung conditions … have sufficient medication for at least two days,” the band posted on its Facebook page. The First Nation is located 17 kilometres north of the facility, and a 10 km/h wind was blowing from the southeast. The First Nation was in contact with the Alberta Energy Regulator to determine how air quality could be affected, and was watching air monitoring stations in the area.
Syncrude employs about 4,600 people in the region. There was no word on how many people were working at the site when the fire broke out.
Another fire at the Mildred Lake site in August 2015 cut output from the facility by about 80 per cent. The fire damaged pipes, power and communications lines between two units of the upgrader, before the facility returned to normal production the following October.