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The Globe and Mail

One person is in stable condition after blaze at Syncrude oil sands plant

The Syncrude Mildred Lake plant, near Fort McKay, Alberta, is seen in this file photo in the early morning hours of September 16th, 2014. (Ian Willms / Boreal Collective)

The Globe and Mail

Fire ripped through a major processing unit at the Syncrude Canada Ltd. oil sands production site in northern Alberta on Tuesday, injuring one person and triggering an evacuation of workers.

Part of Syncrude's Mildred Lake upgrading plant exploded and caught fire around 2 P.M. local time, officials said. It was brought under control in the late afternoon, the company said. The facility is 40 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, Alta.

One person was rushed to hospital, and was listed in serious but stable condition, Alberta Health Services said.

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The status of operations at Syncrude, one of Canada's largest oil sands mining and processing ventures, was not immediately known. Video and pictures posted to social media showed flames leaping from the top of a facility, and thick black smoke rising.

Syncrude spokesman Will Gibson said late on Tuesday it was still unclear if there would be a production impact. More information is expected to be released on Wednesday.

"I don't have any details of that confirmed. What I do know is that we have restricted access to our site as well as access to the affected area of the upgrader," Mr. Gibson said. "We want to focus on our response to this event, and that would include a very thorough investigation into it."

Police and other emergency personnel rushed to the scene, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said.

Traffic was restricted to just one lane on Highway 63, the major thoroughfare that feeds traffic in and out of Canada's oil sands mining region, as police assisted with the evacuation of non-essential workers from Syncrude, they said.

An employee who was at the site when the fire started, close to the end of the day shift, said hundreds of workers were asked to muster in the parking lot before being bussed to Fort McMurray.

"We were calm because last year we went through so much fire," said the worker, who declined to be named.

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Last spring, the oil sands operation was among several that were shut down as a precaution when wildfires raged through the region, damaging large swathes of Fort McMurray and forests throughout the region. Rebuilding from that disaster is still under way.

The Mildred Lake facility was last hit by an explosion and fire in August, 2015, an incident that damaged equipment and squelched production for several weeks. No one was hurt in the blaze.

Syncrude can process up to 350,000 barrels a day. The upgrader turns processed bitumen from the oil sands into light synthetic crude that is shipped to refineries around the continent.

Over the years, Syncrude has been plagued by operational mishaps and outages, but had recently improved its operational performance.

In 2016, Suncor Energy Inc. became its largest interest holder, with 55 per cent. The other partners are Imperial Oil Ltd. with 25 per cent, Sinopec with 9 per cent, Nexen Energy with 7 per cent and Mocal Energy with 5 per cent.

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