Wildfire forces work stoppage at Alberta oilsands site

Wildfire forces work stoppage at Alberta oilsands site

30 May 2011

published by www.montrealgazette.com       

Canada — EDMONTON — An enormous forest fire burning out of control has stopped work at Imperial’s oilsands site north of Fort McMurray.

Rob Harris, a spokesman for Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, said 438 workers were fighting the blaze Monday.

It covers 284,000 hectares and is 65 kilometres north of Fort McMurray. A second fire is burning just southwest, near Fort MacKay. Workers are constructing a fire guard with heavy equipment and 27 helicopters are fighting the fire.

The fire has not yet endangered any communities or industrial areas, Harris said, but several companies have gradually reduced the number of employees at their worksites on a voluntary basis. Evacuation plans are currently at the discretion of companies in the area.

The southeast portion of the blaze has wrapped around McClelland Lake and has reached within a few kilometres of Imperial Oil’s Kearl Oil Sands site, 40 kilometres north of Fort McMurray.

Company spokesman Pius Rolheiser said about 3,000 Kearl workers were held back at their Wapasu camp Monday morning because of concerns about air quality. The company made the same move twice last week when air conditions were bad.

“This is not an evacuation, but there is a temporary suspension of work at the main Kearl site,” Rolheiser said.

The work stoppage has caused concern among Kearl workers, who have been instructed to stay inside due to smoke.

One man, who works as a heavy machine operator at the site but is now in Edmonton, said he’s been getting texts and calls from co-workers at the camp since 5 a.m., raising concerns about air quality, evacuation plans and being stuck at the facility without pay. They are fearful of losing their jobs if they leave, he said.

“Everybody I’ve talked to this morning has big concerns,” he said, asking that his name not be used. “The fire is two kilometres away and they’re telling everyone it’s OK.”

When the worker flew out last week, he said the pilot had difficulty seeing the end of the runway, and it’s only become worse.

Imperial Oil said its evacuation plan has been shared with the province, and the company continues to monitor air quality. On May 20, 400 to 500 workers were evacuated from a site 40 kilometres away at Imperial’s river water intake point, Rolheiser said.

Occupational Health and Safety spokeswoman Sorcha Thomas said the province is aware of the situation at the Kearl site, and has not been made aware of any complaints from workers.

The worker said that during a work stoppage last week, Imperial told them “that if we left the site, we would have to leave our ID” and the company would have assumed they had quit their jobs. The company, he said, rescinded that order the next morning.

“That insinuation has been passed again — that you will have to leave your ID at the door,” said the worker.

Rolheiser described the allegations that workers would lose their jobs if the left the site as a “rumour.”


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