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Syncrude determines cause of oilsands facility fire, maintains ‘controlled burn’

Click to play video 'Fire at Syncrude oil site north of Fort McMurray' Fire at Syncrude oil site north of Fort McMurray
WATCH ABOVE: A video posted by MyMcMurray shows flames and heavy black smoke billowing from the Syncrude oil facility north of Fort McMurray Tuesday, March 14, 2017 – Mar 14, 2017

One day after a worker was seriously injured in an explosion and fire at Syncrude’s Mildred Lake upgrader facility in northern Alberta, the company says it’s found the cause of the blaze.

Syncrude spokesman Will Gibson said a line failure that caused treated naptha to leak sparked the fire. Naptha is one of three hydrocarbons created in the bitumen-upgrading process. The fire started in plant 13-1, where hydrogen is added to product.

Gibson said the fire is still burning but emergency responders are managing it as a controlled burn to burn off residual hydrocarbons. He said the rest of Syncrude’s operations were stable. Several upgrader units were shutdown or minimized. Air monitoring is being done continually on and off the site, he added.

“Mining and extraction at both Mildred Lake and Aurora are being paced to balance bitumen demand,” a Wednesday evening news release said.

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READ MORE: 1 employee injured in explosion and fire at Syncrude upgrader north of Fort McMurray 

On Tuesday, shortly before 2 p.m., workers described smelling a strong scent of gas in one of the units. As alarms rang, they ran from the facility. One witness said it was only a matter of minutes before the ground shook and a huge fireball shot up into the air above the site.

“It smelled a lot like gasoline. It was pretty evident right away that something was going to happen. We started moving and got out of there as fast as we could… We all made it to our muster points and the ground shook,” said a contractor who asked not to be identified.

“We quickly realized that we could feel the wind shift a little bit. I turned around and looked up behind me and there was a fairly large fireball in the air.”

One person was taken to hospital in serious but stable condition and was later flown to an Edmonton hospital.

“One Syncrude employee was injured and immediately attended to by Syncrude Emergency Services prior to being transported to hospital for medical attention,” the company said on its website. “Syncrude is providing support and resources to the employee’s family during this difficult time.”

Watch below: One day after an explosion and fire at the Mildred Lake facility north of Fort McMurray, Syncrude has released the cause.

Click to play video 'Syncrude reveals how plant fire started' Syncrude reveals how plant fire started
Syncrude reveals how plant fire started – Mar 15, 2017

The facility was evacuated and firefighters from Syncrude, Suncor and Wood Buffalo got the blaze under control by around 5 p.m.

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“Yesterday was a tough day for our organization and especially difficult for one employee and his family. Our thoughts and prayers are with our colleague,” Syncrude CEO Mark Ward said. “Syncrude would like to extend its thanks to our industry and community partners for their assistance, as well as everyone who has expressed their support during this difficult time.”

The company said most of its workforce returned to the site Wednesday.

Other employees told Global News contractors and Syncrude employees won’t be back on site until Monday.

RCMP said Wednesday there was no indication the fire was a criminal event. Occupational Health and Safety will take the lead on the investigation, Wood Buffalo RCMP said.

Once it’s safe, Syncrude will complete a damage assessment and teams will repair affected infrastructure. The company will also conduct a full investigation into the fire.

Gibson said everyone’s safety remains a priority for Syncrude and it’s never acceptable to have someone hurt. The injured Syncrude employee is in hospital with family members and is receiving treatment.

“My thoughts are with the worker who was injured,” Labour Minister Christina Gray said Wednesday. “I’m very glad to hear he is in stable condition. I know this must be terrible for him, the family and all the workers who were impacted. I want to say thank you to the Wood Buffalo RCMP and all the first responders who did go onto the site and get those workers out.”

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The province also has OHS officials on standby at the site. They will not be able to gain access to the site of the fire until it is safe for them to enter.

“Occupational Health and Safety will be doing an investigation,” Gray said. “We will be looking into the situation and what can be learned.

“Alberta has a strong culture of safety. The Occupational Health and Safety team, as well as employers around this province, have that strong safety focus. That being said, we are always looking to make sure we are pushing ourselves to be the best, making sure that our legislation is up to date, making sure that the codes and our practices are as good as they can be so that every worker can go to work and come home safely.”

READ MORE: Investigation underway after fire at Syncrude oilsands site in northern Alberta 

Another fire at the Mildred Lake site in August 2015 slashed output at the facility by about 80 per cent. It returned to normal production the following October.

— With files from The Canadian Press

Watch below: A Syncrude employee is in hospital with burns following an explosion at the company’s upgrader facility north of Fort McMurray. Sarah Kraus reports.

Click to play video 'Worker in hospital after fire at Syncrude facility near Fort McMurray' Worker in hospital after fire at Syncrude facility near Fort McMurray
Worker in hospital after fire at Syncrude facility near Fort McMurray – Mar 15, 2017