Peter Dunfield has spent a long and distinguished career poking around rice paddies, peatlands, volcanoes and tailings ponds searching for nature’s tiniest grazers, single-celled micro-organisms that chew up methane.

That quest led the University of Calgary microbiologist to Syncrude’s west in-pit tailings pond in 2012, where he and his team isolated, identified and described two new micro-organisms – Methylicorpusculum oleiharenae and Oleiharenicola alkalitolerans.

“You have to use Latin when describing new species. The first means small-bodied methyl-eater while the second one is alkali-tolerating oil sands dweller,” says Peter. “Identifying these new species is fun, although our main job is to monitor the microbial communities in Base Mine Lake using DNA signatures, and compare them to an active tailings pond and a natural lake. Isolating and describing new microbial species is a sideline and takes a lot of tedious lab work. But when we find something interesting, we do it.”

Dr. Dunfield examining water samples from Base Mine Lake.
Photo Credit: Nadya Dunfield.

In the case of Methylicorpusculum oleiharenae – the small-bodied methane eater – what interests Dunfield is the micro-organism that was abundant in the west in-pit tailings pond in 2012 is now almost nonexistent in Base Mine Lake eight years later.

“That one has now almost disappeared from Base Mine Lake, which is an indication the lake is no longer a tailings pond.”

People should not be concerned that new species are evolving in tailings ponds, because microbial species generally do not evolve over short periods of time.

– Peter Dunfield

With these kind of species, we are talking about tens or hundreds of millions of years of evolution. What we isolated have already existed somewhere. My suspicion is they existed in oil sands seeps or other petroleum deposits but they found a really nice home in the tailings ponds. But they have already existed in nature.” he says. “There are still methane-eating bacteria in Base Mine Lake but different ones have colonized the lake because the conditions have changed and that’s a sign of progress. There have been dramatic changes in the microbes in the lake over the past six years – it really doesn’t resemble a tailings pond any more. It’s somewhere in between a tailings pond and a natural lake now.”

PhD student Chantel Biegler extracts microbial DNA from Base Mine Lake water samples. The DNA will be sequenced to determine what microbes are present in the lake.

Photo Credit: Nadya Dunfield.

Peter and a team of 10 present and former graduate and post-doctoral students have monitored Base Mine Lake since 2014 as part of a group of outside experts from different universities and research institutions working on different areas.

“We’ve enjoyed working on this project – Syncrude has been really good to work with as a partner. It’s a lot of fun – they have a diverse group assembled to look at this lake – we have limnologists, micro-climatologists, geochemists, biologists among other disciplines,” he says. “We’ve learned a lot from each other.”

Base Mine Lake has also provided lessons of its own.

“We’re quite surprised. We thought it might take decades for things to change. We certainly are seeing changes already.

– Peter Dunfield

“There have been dramatic changes, not only in the species of methane oxidising bacteria, but also in other key players such as phototrophic algae. The overall microbial biodiversity appears to be increasing. The lake is trending in a positive direction.”

Learn more about research at Syncrude.

Make Syncrude your #1 choice.


  • Pre-Turnaround Work: late March 2021
  • Mechanical Work Start: April 1, 2021
  • Strong Focus on COVID-19 Protocols

We’ll complete our 2021 Project Gryphon scope safely and effectively with the support of the Building Trades unions and professional skilled tradespeople like you. For more than 50 years, Syncrude has been one of Canada’s most trusted, stable and reliable companies, and North America’s most respected oil sands operator.

Project Gryphon is a Turnaround Event on Syncrude’s 8-3 Coker and associated process units.

More than 2,000 craft personnel are required to execute the project.

Pre-Turnaround work will commence in late March 2021 for select trades; mechanical work will follow with a start date of April 1, 2021. Craft personnel will be working 10-hour shifts, while those supporting the Critical Path will be on 12-hour shifts; unless otherwise required.

Already part of the Gryphon Turnaround? Click here for all you need to know.

Accommodation will be provided and operated by Civeo Lodges, which are all located close to Syncrude’s Mildred Lake site. Guests will have private rooms and bus transportation will be provided between the Lodges and the Syncrude worksite.

Travel assistance protocol will be available to secure specific craft.

For your protection, COVID-19 safeguards and practices are in place at Syncrude worksites and the camp Lodges that Syncrude has secured for our Project Gryphon workforce. All workers are expected to adhere to these while working on our sites; they are in place for your safety as well as the health and well-being of other Syncrude workers and neighbouring communities. These measures include:

  • Daily AHS self-assessment requirement, prior to arriving to the worksite
  • Physical Distancing protocol
  • Wearing of Masks and/or use of other personal barriers
  • Additional COVID-19 guidelines and established self- isolation protocols.

Your #1 Choice for Safety

As we prepare to welcome teams to execute Syncrude’s 2021 Project Gryphon Event, focus and commitment from all workers will be required in order to carry out the plan safely. Safety has always been at the forefront of the way we work. Therefore, in order to create an environment where Nobody Gets Hurt it is important for us to all work together to adhere to the workplace health and safety processes across the Syncrude site and commit to following all procedures and guidelines. Our number one priority is always the health and safety of workers.

We are also dealing with the risk of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on how we onboard workers to site. We remain committed to protecting our people, contractors and staff, and providing them with access to the necessary site information needed to do their job safely.

Syncrude has developed protocols to keep everyone safe against COVID-19. It is important for everyone to understand that these measures are for your safety and the safety of your co-workers. Our first and foremost priority is ensuring the safety of our people, including those who work for our contractor companies. In an effort to help stop the spread, Syncrude requires all workers to keep informed about our ongoing response to COVID-19 as we work together to protect all of our workers and their families.

“Throughout the pandemic, Syncrude’s dedication to safeguarding the health and well-being of its employees has been a shining example of how to protect workers in the oil sands. I’m pleased to say Syncrude is a leader in COVID-19 safety and I applaud them for working with stakeholders like BTA to put best practices in place – and adjust them as needed – to ensure worker safety remains paramount. Syncrude is a valued ally in the battle against workplace COVID-19.”
– Terry Parker, Executive Director, Building Trades of Alberta

“I have hundreds of members working in oil sands camps, and I can say with conviction, Syncrude continues to be a leader in COVID-19 safety for both camp workers and guests. Syncrude’s commitment to working with their partners, like UNITE HERE! Local 47, to put pandemic plans and protocols in place is a testament to their dedication to protecting its workforce during a very difficult time in our industry.”
Ian Robb, Canadian Director, UNITE HERE!
President/Administrator UNITE HERE! Local 47

“Syncrude, in collaboration with Diversified Transportation, has implemented comprehensive measures and actions to ensure the safety of our bus passengers. Sanitization after every shift, enhanced cleaning of units, seat barriers to further limit exposure and the addition of the electronic manifest are all layers of protection added for Syncrude workers.”
Sammy Mujahid
Syncrude Account Manager, Diversified Transportation

“Being born and raised in Fort McMurray, and seeing Syncrude’s community-minded response to COVID 19, has made my family and myself very proud to be part of the Syncrude Solution to maintaining a safe community and a safer workplace. Syncrude’s approach to the pandemic is evidence- and risk-based, and it continuously communicates changes to its contractor family without compromising our safety priorities.”
Abbas Abbas
Health, Safety & Sustainability Manager – Syncrude Site, Worley

“The measures put in place by Syncrude have given us the ability to execute work without the risk of a large-scale outbreak. When there have been positive cases, these measures have minimized the scale of close contacts to very few. Our workforce is happy with the set-up of trailers and change facilities. They are impressed with Syncrude’s work to protect them. The Health Centre and COVID-19 Response Team have been very helpful answering questions and providing guidance when a worker does demonstrate symptoms. Additionally, the communications and information shared with us has been helpful to educate and guide our workforce through these uncertain times.”
Navin Ramlogan
Project Manager, CIMS

“With COVID-19 affecting everyone’s day-to day-environment, Syncrude has again proven to be a safety leader. The company has taken aggressive measures to reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure and ensure strict adherence to Alberta Health Services (AHS)-mandated guidance. They have implemented, sustained and evolved many measures to keep people safe. These include protocols for travel, camp accommodations, and on-site facilities, and it’s great to see contractor companies involved in this process. We thank Syncrude and its Covid-19 Response Team for these efforts.”
Steve Jardine, Vice President

Travel and Accommodations

Syncrude’s Lodge provider, Civeo, has been working in close consultation with medical professionals, government health authorities, third-party experts, and their customers to proactively implement the COVID-19 safety measures found here: Civeo COVID-19 Statement

Civeo is operator of Athabasca and Beaver River Lodges, which will be the lodging and food hosts for Project Gryphon participants for the duration of your contract. Bus transportation between the Lodges and the Syncrude worksite is also complimentary and we will be providing uninterrupted transportation services from the Lodges to four designated work locations at Syncrude Mildred Lake Site. These buses will service Conversion, Utilities and Offsites as well as the Hydroprocessing areas via the following bus stops; 212 Ave., Bldg. 1055, Bldg. 51, Bldg. 1294 and MLV turnstiles. Syncrude issued electronic swipe cards will be required to board all busing services and ID cards will be swiped prior to disembarking the bus for Site Access. Busing schedules will be posted and available at the lodges and on the lodge provider websites for your convenience; please note these schedules are subject to frequent changes.

  • All rooms are equipped with TVs, Desks, lockable storage & dresser and telephones for internal use and local calls.
  • Laundry Facilities

Travel to Fort McMurray and back to your home destination is your responsibility.

The Syncrude Mildred Lake site is about 50 km north of Fort McMurray International Airport (YMM).

The site is also immediately adjacent to Highway 63, which is now twinned.

Syncrude Site Access Requirements

One of the following must be presented:

  • Common Safety Orientation (CSO)
  • Basic Safety Orientation (BSO)
  • CSTS and OSSA Regional
  • Been on the Syncrude sites within the past year

Syncrude Identification REquirements

In order to be able to receive a Syncrude ID Badge and site access individuals must be able to present authorized Government Issued Photo ID accepted by Syncrude:

  • Driver’s License
  • Passport
  • Permanent Residency Card
  • Canadian Citizenship Card
  • Status Card (Federally Issued)
  • Provincial ID Card (this is not a health card, similar to a driver’s license see below)

Note – Accepted Provincial ID Cards for Non-Drivers:

  • B.C. Identification Card
  • Alberta Identification Card
  • Saskatchewan Identification Card
  • Manitoba Identification Card and Manitoba Enhanced Identification Card
  • Ontario Photo Card
  • New Brunswick Photo Identification Card
  • Nova Scotia Identification Card
  • Newfoundland and Labrador Photo Identification Card
  • Prince Edward Island Voluntary Identification
  • Yukon General Identification Card
  • Northwest Territories General Identification Card
  • Nunavut General Identification Card
  • ***Quebec does not issue a photo card for non-drivers***

Any of the above must be the original document, must be valid (e.g. not expired) and must include a photo. (e.g. A Temporary Driver’s License is not acceptable as there is no photo).


Rapid Site Access Program

Syncrude is a RSAP participating site.

Pay and Benefits

Syncrude upholds all Alberta Building Trades Collective Agreements, which offer highly competitive wages for Skilled Trades in Canada. GPMC/NMC 2021 LOUs will apply to both 10- and 12-hour shifts.

Syncrude Location Services (RFID Badges)

  • All Gryphon workforce is required to have an RFID badge as part of their mandatory PPE. In order to be issued an RFID badge, individuals must review the Syncrude Location Services Orientation Video in advance through their companies, present a valid Syncrude ID badge and sign an electronic Consent Form at the camp badging stations.
  • RFID badge must be worn at all times while onsite and be taken back to camp at the end of shift.

What your colleagues say ABOUT WORKING AT sYNCRUDE

“I’ve been coming to Syncrude since 1983 keep coming back because it is a leader in the industry, has a good work environment and good people working there. Syncrude also has the best scaffolding.”Grant, Journeyman Boilermaker

“Syncrude’s safety standards are better than other sites I’ve worked on and their operating systems for shutdowns are very effective — I like that. Syncrude also has excellent relationships with the Building Trades unions and it values the quality craftsmanship that our members offer.”Mark, Journeyman Boilermaker

The people at Syncrude are welcoming, my job in the Turnaround Logistics group allows me to interact with many different folks, and the safety intervention program is great.

– Holly, Labourer

“I like that I work with people and not for people — at Syncrude, you’re a team member. The atmosphere, the commitment to safety and the people make Syncrude a great place to work.”Anthony, Operating Engineer

”Syncrude is recognized as a leader in the way it treats tradespeople, by offering a safe jobsite with good working conditions and accommodations.” Warren Fraleigh, Executive Director, Building Trades of Alberta

“Syncrude has been the single best customer for the Building Trades unions since I first worked on the initial construction of the Syncrude plant in the 1970s.”Robert Blakely, Canadian Operating Officer, Canada’s Building Trades Unions

Contractor Companies

Let’s Get Building! Ask your union hall about opportunities to work on Syncrude’s 2021 Project Gryphon Event with the following Building Trades contractors.

If Chris Austin had his way, Syncrude’s production engineers and operators would start their shift by asking, “How can I save my weight in emissions today?”

And then they would access the tool Chris developed to show the most current data related to production versus energy use throughout the operation.

Using his logic, if the average person weighs 80 kilograms and they thought this way every day, it would take less than a month to reach Syncrude’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emission targets for the next 10 years. “Obviously it is not that easy,” says Chris. “But the more people find small things and recover them early, the more they add up.”

As examples, Chris says that one gallon per minute of condensate recovered is equivalent to 90 kilograms of CO2 emissions based on the heat. If you turn off 10 – 100 Watt light bulbs, that’s 88 kilograms per day of CO2.

The tool is designed to look at the big stuff, but everyone can contribute.

– Chris Austin

Chris, Senior Technical Specialist in Utilities, is talking about the GHG Emissions Tracking Tool he created and Syncrude has been applying since last April.

“The tool was initially developed to be in line with monthly corporate reporting on greenhouse gas emissions intensity,” says Chris. “But because it uses daily data inputs, we can use it to make decisions about energy use every day and influence a reduction in emissions in the moment.”

Syncrude’s plan to reduce GHG emissions is tied to annual Business Plan production targets and employee compensation.

“The goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through reliability improvements, energy reductions, and increased production,” says Sol Cifuentes, GHG Program Lead.

Production is a key word. When production rates are high in the Upgrader, it can produce up to 75 per cent of the total energy needed to produce heat for bitumen recovery. When production is low, the GHG Emissions Tracking Tool highlights specific opportunities to turn down energy demand to match production. Ultimately, we want to produce the most synthetic crude oil using the least amount of energy throughout the process of converting oil sand to oil.

At a glance, the tool shows teams what is happening with energy usage and areas that need a closer look. If an area is showing green or yellow, it’s okay. When it shows red, there is work to do. And the tool is evolving.

Syncrude’s cogeneration facilities produce low carbon power to operate the Upgrader and any excess is exported to the Alberta electric grid.

– Sol Cifuentes

“Chris will be adding a power component to the GHG Emissions Tracking Tool that will highlight yellow or red when there are opportunities to make power with a lower carbon footprint depending on what is happening at site that day.”

Chris explains that the tool is designed to be a compass to help people determine what direction to take when it comes to production and energy. For example, when production rates are down, not as much energy is needed. “Sometimes production isn’t even close to matching the energy being generated,” he says. “So when production rates are reduced, the turn down capability, including the speed of turn down is important to reduce emissions. There has been a huge improvement in our turn down capability.”

Syncrude’s ability to turn down energy when the demand is low has helped reduce overall emissions per barrel. This chart shows production and emissions intensity from 2019 compared to 2020 with the trend being – on average – lower emissions intensity overall

Sometimes little things create big results. Thanks to the GHG Emissions Tracking Tool, operators found opportunities to reduce the amount of heated water needed to match production in the third quarter versus the same time in 2019.

It’s changing the way people think about the energy we use. Information is made available daily, and Chris reviews it with Operations on a weekly basis. It all contributes to a better understanding of energy use on site and what can be done to manage it while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“Giving people absolute numbers helps them understand what they need to do to manage energy,” says Chris. “When they ask, ‘What can I do today? How can I reduce CO2 emissions by 1,000 tonnes today?’ we give them numbers they can work with every day.”

There is more collaboration between business units as they learn about the tool, and their conversations support different ways to use less energy during production to move the plant towards higher efficiency.

Rather than working in silos, they can work together to come up with what emissions can be reduced.

Tracking production volumes for energy reduction opportunities, combined with an ongoing focus on reliability, promotes Syncrude’s goal of being more carbon efficient while lowering expenses related to greenhouse gases.

Engagement matters, and the actions of many, even just a little bit, can outweigh the actions of a few.

– Chris Austin

Learn more about our Climate Change Strategy.

Haul truck 17-100 – a shiny new Cat 797 – went into service at Syncrude’s North Mine in June 1999, about the same time that the Dallas Stars were lifting their first Stanley Cup after defeating the Buffalo Sabres.

Twenty one years later with 55,803,015 tons of material hauled over 157,051 trips, the truck continues to roll along the haul roads at Syncrude’s Aurora Mine to achieve a world-record 150,000 operating hours.

“The longevity of this truck is an incredible achievement, particularly when you consider it was designed for an operating life of 72,000 hours,” says Craig Coolen, Syncrude’s Manager – Mine Mobile Maintenance. “Along the way, there’s a lot of people who have helped this truck reach that significant milestone.”

Craig, who was working his way through school when the truck first began operating, sees the collaboration between different business units as a major contributor to the truck’s durability.

Syncrude worked closely with Finning Canada as well as Caterpillar, during the 797’s development.

– Craig Coolen

This photo was taken when the hauler passed the 100,000-hour operating milestone.

“Once the truck arrived at our site, we continued to work with those partners to improve the truck. That involved people from Research, Reliability, Maintenance and Operations as well as our partners at Finning,” Craig says.

Brent Boutilier, a Senior Project Manager with Research & Development, was a technician working on heavy equipment for Syncrude when 17-100 arrived at site. He and many other employees worked with Caterpillar on improving the truck’s reliability after some early challenges with structural issues and engine performance.

Oil sands are the ultimate proving ground and you need everyone in the chain, from the steam bay to the operators to the people who fuel them to the executive suite, to make it all work.

– Brent Boutilier

In addition to a lot of rolling, the truck – which weighs 1.14 million pounds with a full load – has a lot of technology behind. There are about 500 different sensors located throughout the vehicle that provide data to an onboard computer, which feeds notifications to a panel operator in an office. That data has helped support the truck’s availability and reliability.

“Having this information from the Operator Care Program has also helped our operators better understand how they can play a crucial role in keeping the equipment available,” says Fraser Sutherland, Business Team Leader – Aurora Mining Trucks.

We are ensuring the truck is operating within its limits. When it doesn’t, we respond appropriately.

– Fraser Sutherland

Craig, who oversees more than 500 maintenance technicians, contractors and staff, says his team is the best in the business.

“This truck has had its engine rebuilt 10 times during its time at Syncrude, which is a very complex task,” Craig says. “Their work is very ably supported by a group of Finning technicians at our sites. Finning is a great partner who has played a significant role in reaching this milestone.”

And just how long can the truck continue to run? “Like anything, 17-100 truck has a lifespan. Our job is to keep it running safely and reliably while it’s in our service.”

A need to solve monitoring mysteries for Base Mine Lake prompted one Syncrude researcher to turn to medical equipment and the results have been great.

Barry Bara, a senior technical specialist with the Mine Closure Research Team needed to measure the bitumen and gases on the surface of the lake. He also wanted to locate mats – deposits of bitumen formed after tailings were placed into the lake bottom – so they could be removed.

The lake is a former mine pit now reclaimed as an aquatic landscape feature that sequesters the tailings material underneath the water layer. Syncrude completed the placement of tailings into the pit at the end of 2012 and began adding fresh water.

Research dating back to the late 1970s showed the technology would turn the area into a lake capable of sustaining aquatic life, which will be incorporated into the reclaimed landscape. Syncrude had already demonstrated this through a series of test ponds. Base Mine Lake is the first time the technology is being used on a large scale in the oil sands.

Researchers have conducted extensive monitoring and testing to check the progress of the lake since 2012. One important but difficult measurement is the amount of bitumen and gas in the lake. But the team discovered you could find those elements in the ice that formed on the lake during the winter

Last winter, Barry and his team harvested 200 ice cores 60 to 70 centimetres thick from the lake.

These cores may contain gas and bitumen, which rise to the surface. During the winter, they are frozen into the ice. We want to get an idea of what is coming up in different areas of the lake.

– Barry Bara

“If you keep doing that year after year, you can identify the areas where to concentrate your remediation. Then you can demonstrate you’ve reduced the bitumen because you have the actual measurements.”

With the use of a computed tomography (CT) scanner – a medical imaging machine – Barry and his team were able to find out from the samples how much bitumen came to the surface.

In collaboration with Coanda Research and Development, Barry also pursued another piece of medical imaging equipment to locate bitumen mats at the bottom of the lake. Ultrasound machines use sound waves to see inside the human body. He saw an opportunity because ultrasound works the same as sonar-based fish finders used by recreational anglers. Syncrude bought a commercial sonar unit and Barry hopes it can identify bitumen mats.

Sheldon Aylward was walking down the right of way for a new access road being built for Syncrude’s Aurora site on July 25 when something white caught his eye in the dark reclamation material being salvaged.

Upon closer inspection, the foreman with North American Construction Group realized he had spotted something important.

“I do a lot of hunting and fishing and I figured it might be a bison based on the skull. It was sticking out of the material. We had a lot of rain at that time. I figured the rain would have washed away the material covering it,” says Sheldon.

Sheldon immediately alerted Syncrude’s mine operations, who sent out Geologist Patrick Dunbar to investigate the discovery while the North American crew taped off the area to protect what they found.

“After carefully removing material from around the skull, it was very exciting to pull it out of the bank and see a complete skull with both horns, all of its bones and even almost all of its teeth still intact.”

– Patrick Dunbar

Patrick carefully documented the finding by taking photographs before speaking with Chris Jass, the curator of Quaternary (Ice Age) palaeontology at the Royal Alberta Museum about preserving the skull.

“We take the utmost care to preserve any fossils or artifacts found on our leases,” says Patrick, who joined Syncrude in 2017. “Syncrude has put protocols in place to ensure these finds are protected.”

The skull represents a significant paleontological find for the museum due to its age, condition and location.

“One of the biggest research questions for us is how did we go from an ice-impacted landscape where nothing lived in Alberta because of the presence of giant sheets of ice from 25,000 to 15,000 years ago to what you see today,” says Chris. “This skull doesn’t tell that story by itself but represents a piece of that puzzle. We also have not received a lot of fossils from northern Alberta because it is covered with the vegetation and the soils are fairly acidic, which can break down bones quickly. We don’t have a good Ice Age fossil record from northeastern Alberta so this is very exciting for us.”

Chris estimates the skull is up to 5,000 years old based on the size of the horn cores in the photos taken by Patrick. “Bison migrated to North America about 200,000 years ago based on evidence found in Yukon and Alaska. Prior to the last major growth of glacial ice starting 25,000 years ago, horses were more prevalent than bison,” Chris says. “When the glaciers receded ~15,000 years ago, bison populations just explode and it becomes that iconic symbol we associate with the western landscape.”

Chris will have a better idea of the skull’s age once it is transported down to the museum from Syncrude’s site, something that will take place when COVID-19 restrictions are eased. However, he praised the way Syncrude handled the discovery.

“What everybody did was perfect. This is essentially what we ask for, if something is found, make sure it gets aside out of harm’s way and contact us so we can preserve these heritage resources for all Albertans.”

– Chris Jass

“We appreciate it when people and companies act responsibly. This is going to be an important part of the museum’s Ice Age paleontology collection.”

That’s something Sheldon appreciates. “I’m not going to lie. When I first saw it, I thought it would look great hanging from the wall in my garage,” he says. “The neatest thing that I’ve ever found. I’m proud to be able to help preserve an important piece of history.”

Innovation doesn’t happen in isolation.

That’s why Syncrude has a long history of collaborating with leading researchers and scientists from universities and institutions across Canada.

Ecologist Carla Wytrykush is a member of the multi-disciplinary team that is turning a former oil sands mine into the industry’s first commercial demonstration of an End-Pit Lake.  Developed to reclaim mine tailings, this technology contains the tailings in an empty mine pit with water on top to create a lake. The water supports a variety of aquatic life including algae, zooplankton and insects. 

It’s exciting to be part of such a robust R&D program involving so many top scientists and working on a project that is so important to Syncrude and the industry. We’re building on 40 years of testing and research, and still learning new things every day

– Carla Wytrykush

Carla’s team is responsible for monitoring the overall performance at Base Mine Lake—and it’s no small undertaking. 

‘To give you an idea of the scope of all that’s involved in ensuring the success of this project, on any given day we are tracking water quality, water chemistry, physics of the tailings, ecology, physical dynamics, microbial activity, gas flux from the lake, wave patterns and vegetation on the lake, and the list goes on.” 

By partnering with the best and brightest minds on the Base Mine Lake project, we continue to strive towards creating sustainable landscapes that meet our commitments to being a leader in responsible development in the oil sands.

Since reclamation began at Syncrude, more than 11 million trees and shrubs have now been planted at reclamation sites.

This year alone, more than one million trees and shrubs were planted which led to reaching that record.

Despite the challenges the season presented with a global pandemic hampering work in various areas and industries, the program had to continue, says Syncrude’s vegetation specialist Eric Girard.

To continue reclamation is the right thing to do.

– eric girard

“It was tough to do this work during the pandemic, however safety has always been a top priority at Syncrude and we had the protocols in place to ensure everyone’s health and safety. While some activities were stood down to maintain health and safety protocols, tree planting activities were able to continue because physical distancing was not a challenge.”  

Tree planting began May 20 with 22 people working on the program, 16 of whom were tree planters and the rest support crews who supervised and transported trees to various spots located north of the Syncrude’s North Mine. Towards the end of the season, the tree planting crew grew to about 30 to ensure that the program was finished by June 21.

Summer sends a message to plants that the growing season has an end. It was important for us to complete the planting by that date.

– Eric Girard

“As we enter July, the trees and shrubs should be actively growing or it may become challenging for them to come to life and survive. We need to give them a chance and the sooner we plant them, the better. The plants need time to get out of dormancy, grow roots and leaves, grow new buds, seal them, and be ready with reserves for the upcoming winter. They need time to go through the different phases of growth.”

More than 400 hectares were planted this year and the remaining area placed with soils are planned to be covered in the spring of 2021.

Balsam Poplar, trembling aspen, white birch, jackpine and white spruce were among the species of trees planted this year while the shrubs consisted of green alder, river alder, red osier dogwood, rat root, Saskatoon, buffaloberry, honeysuckle, willows, roses, Labrador tea, bog birch, snowberry, pin cherries, lingonberry, twinflowers, crowberries, sedges, Low bush cranberries, blueberry and hazelnuts.

As in previous years, Little Smokey Forestry Services provided professional tree planters and the required support to make the 2020 program a success despite the unique season.  

This year the team successfully completed around 9,000 workforce hours safely.

We are very proud we were able to complete the tree planting program this year with zero injuries.

– Ryan Pozzi

Even though it is very rough terrain and the work is highly physical, the tree planters did a great job working safe”, says Pozzi, Production Day Supervisor for the Environmental and Fluid Transfer Team which is responsible for the safe operations and completion of the tree planting program.

As a daughter of a sailor, Lesley Warren always felt a close connection to water.

As a daughter of a sailor, Lesley Warren always felt a close connection to water. But rather than following her father into the Royal Navy and exploring the briny deep, she followed her passion for water through scientific pursuits.

“My family was always linked to water because of my father, who was stationed throughout the world so we followed him. But water was always the thread,” says Lesley, who was born in England but grew up in several different ports of call. “Shortly after we emigrated to Canada when I was a teenager, I realized I could study water and wanted to pursue that. Water underpins human society.”

More than 30 years and two degrees later, Lesley is leading a team of scientists from the University of Toronto conducting critical research on Base Mine Lake, Syncrude’s demonstration project of its water-capping technology for fluid fine tailings.

With pit lakes such as Base Mine Lake, you need to know what you are leaving in the closure landscape will seamlessly integrate with the surrounding natural environment. In order to create a healthy aquatic environment, you need oxygen

– Lesley warren

Lesley, an applied scientist who combines geochemistry with molecular and experimental microbiology to identify the processes that affect water quality and reclamation outcomes. “There are geo-chemical processes influenced by invisible microorganisms occurring in these systems that influence how much oxygen exists in the water. Our research aims to identify these microbially linked processes that are driving both positive and negative outcomes, so Syncrude can be smart about designing water-capped tailings technology to promote the processes that help produce oxygen.”

Lesley and her team take water samples from different depths of Base Mine Lake throughout the year to further their understanding about those processes. “Microbes live under many more conditions than we can so we sample the entire depth of the water cap to capture all the possible microbial processes that may be occurring that can influence oxygen concentrations. During the winter, this means drilling through the ice to collect samples from the water beneath. We sample the water all year to capture any seasonal changes in biological activity so we can provide a robust baseline of important oxygen-influencing processes,” says Lesley, who holds the Claudette Mackay-Lassonde Chair in Mineral Engineering and serves as the director of the Lassonde Institute of Mining at the University of Toronto.

Lesley has worked on projects at Syncrude for more than 10 years after some of the company’s researchers heard her speak on how the organization could employ microbially integrated geochemical investigation as part of its strategy to develop sound, science-based reclamation. Lesley has come to appreciate the approach taken by Syncrude.

Syncrude has been a phenomenal partner. It values EDI (equity, diversity and inclusivity). It wants bright minds to help them find the best solutions. Syncrude is forward-thinking on so many levels. It values science and research and understands how it can propel the organization to add value and find the best solutions

– lesley warren

“It also is not afraid to go a little further afield to find the right solutions.”

Lesley has not always experienced that same welcoming attitude during her career.

“Any female professor in any of the hard sciences has likely faced those obstacles. When I started out, maybe five per cent of the professors in the hard sciences were female. In many cases, this number has not changed in the 20 years that I have been a professor. I was fortunate to have a couple of female role models in my career,” says Lesley, who completed her undergraduate degree and PhD at U of Toronto. “That’s changing in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). I’ve certainly not experienced any barriers in the dozen or so years working at Syncrude, but that’s an organization that values inclusivity and diversity. That attitude comes straight from the top and reflects the culture of inclusivity that is embedded at Syncrude; an organization that is led currently by a female engineer.”

Lesley’s sentiments were echoed by two of her field researchers, who appreciate how much she and other female leaders in STEM have helped change the landscape for the next generation of female scientists.

“I wasn’t really aware how women were positioned in science while I was an undergrad,” says Tara Colenbrander Nelson, a water scientist who has studied and worked with Lesley since 2001. “Because I had Lesley as a mentor, I probably wasn’t as aware of some of the challenges as others in the field.”

Yunyun Yan, a PhD student who has just joined Lesley’s group this last year from China, agrees with her colleague. “The expectations for me are no different than for anybody else,” she says.

Being able to work in the field without any barriers helps produce better research, Tara says.

“There’s still a lot of science that can be learned from these projects. It’s a unique circumstance and a great place to be learning,” says Tara. “And that’s important because we work on closure projects, what happens after the mine is finished. You want the best people and brightest minds working on that so the environment is protected.”

And it’s difficult having the best people when you don’t include half of the population.

“Industry partners who want to develop the smartest strategies for these grand challenges are not going to want to limit themselves,” Lesley says. “We need to do the best we can do to steward water. I’m glad to be a part of finding those solutions because water will always be a part of who I am.”

Main photo: Lesley Warren holds the Claudette Mackay-Lassonde Chair in Mineral Engineering and serves as the director of the Lassonde Institute of Mining at the University of Toronto

Syncrude’s full-scale closed circuit water return demonstration project will start operating this summer, 14 years after initial research began on treating mine water using petroleum coke.

“The treatment principles behind this technology are similar to a home water filter using activated carbon. Mine water treated by our petroleum coke technology removes suspended solids such as clay, as well as hydrocarbons and dissolved organic compounds, including naphthenic acids. Research to date shows the treated water will support aquatic life and protect downstream uses,” says Warren Zubot, Senior Engineering Associate, who has led Syncrude’s research on the technology.

“This project will return treated water to the Mildred Lake Settling Basin, a tailings facility and one of our main sources of recycled water. The closed circuit testing at the demonstration project will provide additional insight and confirm former research whether the quality of the treated water is suitable for eventual return to the Athabasca River based on environmental guidelines and subject to regulatory approval.”

Syncrude began researching the technology in 2005 in the laboratory before running tests on a field pilot in 2012. You can learn more about this research by watching the below video.

In addition to collecting evidence to demonstrate this technology will significantly improve water quality so it is safe for downstream uses, Warren says the project will inform industry water management practices to help ensure Syncrude advances environmental performance improvements.

Pictured here, mine water before (left) and after (right) petroleum coke filtration.

“Release of water off site, which would be subject to regulatory approval, will allow Syncrude and other oil sands mining operators to advance progressive reclamation and meet mine closure targets,” he says.

Syncrude is engaging with Indigenous communities and other regional stakeholders so they’re fully informed about the project, the technology and the promising results we’ve achieved to date, as well as having the opportunity to provide thoughts and feedback.

Public input will continue to be sought throughout the project and incorporated into decisions that may impact local communities.


Manager, Community Relations

To assess the water treatment process and demonstrate ecosystem protection, Syncrude will conduct a comprehensive monitoring and testing plan to document the water quality throughout the treatment process.

“The Alberta government’s Oil Sands Process Water (OSPW) Science Team – which consists of representatives from government, industry and Indigenous communities in the region — is helping put together the testing program,” Warren says. “Syncrude will share what we’ve learned from the project with our industry partners through Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA). We are also engaged with academic institutions to advance knowledge and ensure results are transparent and publicly available in peer-reviewed scientific literature.”

Syncrude values the importance of our region’s water and our commitment to reclaiming the land disturbed by our operation. This project further demonstrates our commitment to responsible development.