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Suncor Oil Sands operation, near where officials were seen taking samples for the Athabasca River, after a pipeline carrying industrial waste water ruptured, Tuesday, March, 26, 2013 in Fort McMurray, Alberta. (Brett Gundlock For The Globe and Mail)
Suncor Oil Sands operation, near where officials were seen taking samples for the Athabasca River, after a pipeline carrying industrial waste water ruptured, Tuesday, March, 26, 2013 in Fort McMurray, Alberta. (Brett Gundlock For The Globe and Mail)

RCMP investigating after Suncor staffer found dead at oil-sands project site Add to ...

A 40-year old man was found dead in a pool of sand and water after a workplace incident at one of Canada’s largest oil-sands operations this weekend.

The victim, Jerry Cooper, worked for Suncor Energy Inc. for 13 years. He was a tailings operator, the company said, and was found “submerged’ in soft ground at a sand dump.

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Mr. Cooper went to check on a pipeline leak around 5:30 a.m. Sunday, according to Lisa Glover, spokesperson for Alberta Occupational Health and Safety. When he did not return for his shift change at 7 am, Suncor employees started looking for him around, the company said. They found their co-worker just before 11 a.m. at a so-called “sand dump” area, where materials tied to extracting bitumen from the oil sands are left to dry.

“He was found unresponsive in a pool of sand and water,” Ms. Glover said.

The RCMP, which is investigating the death, said they were notified about the missing person around 8 a.m. Sunday.

“While police were en route to Suncor they received information that suggested the missing employee may be deceased,” the RCMP said in a statement released Monday. “RCMP members arrived on scene where the victim was located submerged in sand as a result of a work place incident.”

Suncor, which investigates all injuries at its operations, is also investigating Mr. Cooper’s death. “It would have been appropriate for the employee to be in that area,” company spokeswoman Sneh Seetal said. It also would be normal for him to get out of his vehicle. Ms. Seetal did not know what kind of vehicle he was driving.

The sand dump area where Mr. Cooper was found, she said, is very soft. It is at Suncor’s main oil sands site, known as its base plant.

No other employees were involved, Suncor said. Mr. Cooper’s family gave the company permission to release his name.

The exact cause of death is unknown but it does not appear to be suspicious, the RCMP said.

The Calgary-based energy company is cooperating with the RCMP and Alberta Occupational Health and Safety as they investigate. The scene has been secured for the investigation, and Alberta Occupational Health and Safety has one investigator on site, according to Ms. Glover. The government has not ordered a wider work stoppage at Suncor’s operations.

“We extend our sincere condolences to the family, friends and co-workers,” Mark Little, Suncor’s executive vice president leading the upstream division, said in a statement. “They are certainly in our thoughts and prayers during this extremely difficult time.”

Suncor said its human resources team has “initiated grief counselling activities for family and co-workers of the employee.”

A Canadian subsidiary of the Chinese state-owned oil giant Sinopec last January paid a record $1.5-million workplace violation fine for two deaths in 2007. The accident happened in April, 2007, as Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. built its Horizon oil-sands project. Two Chinese workers were struck and killed by falling steel. Five other employees were injured. Two of those had serious injuries. CNRL had contracted SSEC Canada Ltd. – a small arm of Sinopec – to work on Horizon.

SSEC pleaded guilty in October, 2012, to three charges under Alberta’s Occupational Health and Safety Act.

Oil-sands producers experienced one fatality in each of 2011 and 2012, according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers’ 2013 progress report. It is unclear whether this includes employees of contract companies working at oil-sands projects and companies who are not CAPP members.

Three people died at conventional oil and gas operations in Western Canada in 2012, the report said.

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