What’s worse than a hundred-year flood? Another one, seven years later – but this time we phoned a friend, and like a good neighbour, Syncrude was there to help.

Earlier in 2020, Fort McMurray was just recovering from an ice jam that caused the Athabasca River to overflow its banks, resulting in severe flooding throughout the townsite and surrounding area.

Then, on June 8, heavy rainfall throughout the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB) resulted in the partial washout of AOSTRA Road, a critical access point for our MacKay River site and many other operators nearby. AOSTRA is the only way in or out to many other operating sites in the area. Syncrude worked with Sunshine Oil, Petro China, Brion and critical contractors to assist with their access to sites.

With safety as our top priority, the road was deemed unfit to drive over, especially for dozens of workers heading to and from the site to complete the evening shift change. MacKay River’s business continuity plan contains two options in the event of a road wash out: Fly employees in and out by helicopter or activate emergency access through Syncrude’s nearby Mildred Lake mine area. Applying learnings from a similar washout of AOSTRA Road in June 2013, Rebecca Gunson, a Non-Producing Assets (NPA) coordinator chose the second option.

A drone inspection shows the extent of the washout at AOSTRA Road on June 8
A drone inspection shows the extent of the washout at AOSTRA Road on June 8.

“The two big questions everyone was asking that day were: ‘Can I get home?’ and ‘Can my other colleagues get to site?’” says Rebecca. “We knew we only had a small window to get organized with a plan to drive through Syncrude’s mine.”

There are many things to consider before anyone can drive through an active mine. As the assessment and repair crews began work to protect AOSTRA Road from eroding any further, Rebecca and her logistics section team got to work connecting in with Syncrude to activate the emergency access plan to use the Mildred Lake mine access road as a bypass.

Syncrude was quick to work with our logistics team to expedite the request, deploying road maintenance equipment to prepare the road in record time, ensuring vehicles were properly permitted and providing the Suncor vehicles with Syncrude escorts who knew the lay of the land and were able to keep the Suncor convoy safe while they drove through the mine.

“I can tell you that things don’t usually happen as quickly as they did on June 8,” says Joel Gonzalez, manager maintenance and reliability at MacKay River. “Syncrude showed a high level of organization and collaboration by quickly deploying key roads and ground resources and equipment to ensure the road was safe and drivable, especially given all the rain we’d had; the Mildred Lake mine road was in rough shape.”

MacKay River employees drove a convoy of light fleet vehicles, since buses likely would have gotten stuck, and with everyone riding in trucks, there was also COVID-19 maximum passenger protocols to consider. Fortunately, enough vehicles were on hand to safely transport everyone to and from site.

The temporary ‘convoy commute’ was in place for just two days until water levels receded, and crews had completed critical repair work. AOSTRA Road was reopened with one lane to essential personnel in the afternoon on June 10 and was fully passable for all travel on June 15.