By Jody MacPherson

Originally appeared in TIP (Things, Ideas, People) Syncrude Canada’s employee newsletter.

The elevator creaks and moans as it ascends the huge cement monster. Up, up, up it climbs to the mid-way point–the point of no return.

Inside the tiny compartment, two technologists are squished together throughout the three-minute ascent.  When the elevator stops, they emerge with a sigh of relief–sardines sprung from a tin can.

A probe resembling a huge thermometer is inserted into the mouth of the cement dragon–a dragon that doesn’t breathe fire but instead belches out a collection of gases and particulates. The two technologists look like tiny doctors, taking the temperature of a sick giant.

Annette Watlow and Diane Phillips are environmental technologists working in the Operations Lab. Once a week during the summers, the two women go up the mammoth smokestack, a Syncrude landmark and once the tallest structure in Alberta, to carry out routine maintenance on the equipment which monitors emissions into the atmosphere.

They bustle about in the dark, dirty and cramped room–a mere 1.5 metres in diameter–checking instruments, changing filters and cleaning lines. The monitors are located halfway up the stack, where there are no flow restrictions and the most accurate measurements can be taken. The monitor automatically records emission levels and sends the data to a computer in the main laboratory.

Every 12 hours, a known concentration of sulphur dioxide gas is automatically sent through the analyzer to check the calibration.  If this is not within government limits, then it means a trip up the stack for troubleshooting to find the problem.  This could be any time of the day or night.  Annette or Diane are always on call.

Four times a year, the technologists must also conduct a stack survey according to government regulations. The stack surveys are not exactly a picnic–12 hours in a small, dingy room, sort of like pole sitting in a gale.

Faint: The probe is large and unwieldy in the small space. In order to fit it into the stack for a measurement, they must swing open a door and step out onto a balcony. With only a steel grating between you and the hard ground 91 metres below, it’s not a job for the faint of heart.

The stack survey consists of inserting the probe into the centre of the stack and attaching this to a suction pump. Gas samples are drawn through the probe at the same rate they are going up the stack–at 24 different points across the stack. Diane and Annette analyze all the gases, determining their molecular weight, concentration, flow rate and emission rate. In addition to the government surveys, they estimate four more surveys are carried out each year for use within Syncrude.

Once, Diane was stuck up there for one and a half hours when the elevator wasn’t working. It’s a long climb down on a ladder so she decided to wait for the elevator mechanic. She grimaces at the memory of the long nerve-wracking experience. It gives new meaning to the saying, “it’s lonely at the top.”

“One time when we were doing a stack survey, our supervisor came up to visit us. We gave him such a hard time for forgetting to bring up coffee that the next time he came up, he brought coffee and chocolate bars,” says Diane. And you thought YOU had to walk a long way to the vending machine!

It’s an important job. The monitor measures levels of sulphur dioxide particulates of heavy metals. Both are released into the atmosphere during normal plant operations. The monitor ensures that levels are kept within government guidelines.

Every day, 200 tonnes of sulphur dioxide is released into the atmosphere. That’s 80 tonnes less than the amount released before the Capacity Addition Project came on line. In other words, Syncrude is producing more oil and emitting less sulphur dioxide into the air.  The company’s goal is to decrease emissions even more in the future.

In the meantime, Annette and Diane keep a strict watch on what goes up the smokestack. Every minute and every hour the on-line monitor tells the main lab computer how much and what is escaping into the atmosphere. If there is an exceedance, Annette or Diane phone the Upgrading shift co-ordinator and they try to determine what is causing the problem. Production may have to be cut in order to stop the emission. Alberta Environment must be notified every hour that Syncrude exceeds its limit.

When Diane and Annette aren’t braving the wind and cold on Syncrude’s smokestack, they might be found at the University of Alberta’s wind tunnel. Once a year, the pitot tube, or the probe used to measure the stack emissions, must be calibrated. The calibration involves checking the instrument against a standard to ensure the accuracy of its measurements.

The tube is placed in the wind tunnel, where the wind speed is easily controlled, and tested to ensure it is taking accurate readings back at home in the Syncrude smokestack. When the calibration is done, Annette and Diane return to Fort McMurray and the cycle begins again.


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