Horizon remains under stop work order

One man remains in hospital with burns following Thursday's coker fire at the Horizon oilsands project which remains shut down.

A stop work order issued by Alberta Occupational Health and Safety remains in effect at the Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. site about 75 kilometres north of Fort McMurray.

Sorcha Thomas, spokeswoman for the safety watchdog, said the provincial agency will be working with a third-party engineering consultant in the investigation to determine the cause of the explosion that sent two men hospital with burns: one suffered first degree burns while the second suffered second and third degree burns.

Three OH&S officers remain on site investigating the incident.

OH&S has two years to complete its investigation. During a press conference Friday afternoon, Alberta Employment and Immigration Minister Thomas Lukaszuk said the investigation will not be rushed, taking as much time within that limit as it needs.

"It will take as long as it takes for us to make sure that we know for certain workers will be safe to re-enter that area," Lukaszuk replied when asked when the stop work order would be lifted.

To calls for transparency in the investigation from the Alberta Federation of Labour which is critical of the safety record at CNRL, Thomas said what details can be related and made public will be.

"It's the same as any other investigation," she added.

In an update issued this morning, CNRL stated the fire at its primary upgrading facility at Horizon was successfully extinguished around 7:15 p.m. Thursday, just less than four hours after it started. An earlier update had noted that the fuel source of the fire had been isolated, containing the fire to the coker in the primary upgrading area.

The cause of the fire is currently under investigation by regulators as well as CNRL. With the stop work order in place, synthetic crude oil production has been suspended. It has not yet been determined when production will resume.

A US $2 billion umbrella insurance package for the Horizon facility will cover repairs of damaged plant and equipment, said the CNRL update, and offers business interruption insurance to effectively cover ongoing operating costs incurred on the site after 90 days.

The company intends to provide further updates, offering additional additional information on the impact of operations, the extent of the damage, and the estimated timing and costs of repairs.

Enhanced air monitoring has been put in place and will continue for several days. No air quality exceedences have been detected in the area of the plant or in the neighbouring community of Fort McKay.

Meanwhile, a statement issued by Fort McKay, said the explosion provide the reserve's emergency response protocol was effective in immediately informing the community of the incident.

"The safety and security of our community members is our first priority. While (Thursday's) explosion at the CNRL site did cause immediate alarm in our community it was another testament that our emergency response protocol is sound and effective."

He said the community's notification system went into action immediately, largely thanks to the "respectful relationships" Fort McKay has with its industrial neighbours.

Bouchier recalled that within minutes of the incident, Fort McKay's band administration and fire chief were contacted by CNRL. The administration in turn contacted residents through a variety of means including phone calls, e-mails and a community posting.

"Should an industrial incident or a disaster of any kind warrant the need for an evacuation, our notification system is in place to provide this direction to our community members," added Mel Grandjamb, Fort McKay's fire chief and director of services.

"Fortunately, this was a contained explosion that was effectively communicated to us by CNRL. We wish their injured employees a speedy recovery."

In a letter to Lukaszuk, AFL president Gil McGowan demanded the CNRL investigation be thorough, timely, and transparent and as public as possible.

He reasoned the timeliness and transparency are important given what has happened with the government's response to the last major accident that occurred on the Horizon site: the tank farm collapse of April 2007 that killed two Chinese temporary workers and injured four others.

"Nearly three years have passed since that incident and we still don't know what happened. We don't know what problems were at the root of the collapse and we don't what steps, if any, have been taken to fix those problems," said McGowan. "To put it bluntly, what has happened with the investigation into the tank farm collapse simply can't be allowed to happen to the investigation into (Thursday's) coker explosion."

A third workplace fatality happened at Horizon on Sept. 3, 2008 when a Clayton Construction employee drowned after the floating excavator he was driving when it flipped onto the operator's side and sank in the tailings pond.

The AFL is also calling on the government to create an expert advisory panel - similar to panels used in other provinces - to investigate the rapid pace of development in the oilsands. It would address whether the pace of development in the oilsands has compromised worker and public safety and, if so, what steps should be taken to mitigate the problems.

"We feel strongly that Alberta must conduct a thorough review of the impact of the rapid pace of development and its impact on health and safety in the workplace before we head into yet another boom in the oil sands," said McGowan. "If we do not, more lives will be lost, more workers will be injured or maimed, and Alberta's reputation as a safe place to work and do business will continue to be tarnished."

However, Lukaszuk would not be drawn into calling the Horizon site was more dangerous than any other site in the oilsands during the press conference.

"The numbers don't seem to reflect that ... This site cannot be isolated as a more dangerous site to work. That simply cannot be substantiated by the numbers of accidents and by objective information."

Lukaszuk was referring to the number of lost time claim rates for injuries, the number of days where a person misses more than one day of work per 100 person years worked. Across all industries in Alberta the workplace injury rate, on average, is 1.69. In the oilsands, the rate is 0.34.

Fort McMurray Today, Sun Jan 9 2010
Byline: Carol Christian

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