Dragline inset

A Look Back: ‘Discovery’ Dragline was a Towering Presence in Syncrude Mine

Jul 08, 2019

Lorne Wyatt used to climb to the top of the dragline boom or the mast every dayshift, to a metal grated perch more than 180 feet above the mine.

“You’d have to go up there to do inspections or sometimes haul up grease kegs for lubing. When you ascended and descended, you weren’t tied off. You were standing on a metal grating inside hand rails,” says Lorne. “It took a little bit of getting used to. I don’t know if I could do it today. It was a young man’s job.”

Lorne worked on Discovery, which was officially retired from service on July 8, 1999, the first of Syncrude’s four draglines to end its service after 20 years of operation.

“There were three-person crews who worked the dragline. All members were trained to operate the dragline. The operator was the captain but the team also included an oiler and a groundsperson, which was my role,” says Lorne, who had worked as a heavy equipment operator for three years before being selected to work on the draglines. “It was different for me – I was never on a dragline until the first night I was scheduled to start – it’s hard to appreciate the size of the equipment until you get up close to it. I was like, ‘Oh dear, what I have I gotten myself into?’”

The height of a 25-storey building with a bucket the size of a two-car garage, Discovery went into service in August 1977 after taking 18 months to assemble. Known as a “walking dragline,” Discovery could make a giant step every 40 seconds when time came to move its location in the mine.

During its lifetime, Discovery worked more than 105,000 operating hours and mined more than 312 million cubic metres of oil sand in Base Mine’s east pit. It walked about 500,000 steps covering 1,100 kilometres within the Syncrude mine site – roughly the same distance it takes to drive from Fort McMurray to Regina. And Lorne paved the path for some of those steps with a D-11 dozer.

“As the groundsperson, I was responsible for the walk roads used when the dragline moved. You had to make a 40-metre wide road using the dozer – the dragline was 35-metres wide so you wanted to give it a little wiggle room,” says Lorne, who joined Syncrude as a heavy equipment operator in February 1986. “I worked on the draglines for about four years – it was one of the better jobs I ever had.”

Just as Syncrude announced it was phasing out draglines, Lorne decided to pursue an opportunity with the Extraction Auxiliary Production Systems (EAPS), the pilot project that ushered in Syncrude’s hydrotransport technology and spelled the end of the dragline-and-bucketwheel era.

“A lot of the operators decided they’d stay with the draglines until they retired but Syncrude was always good about helping retrain people. In my case, I took the initiative to find an opportunity and that served me well,” says Lorne.

Gerald Pratt, who started out his career as mine planner just as Syncrude announced the retirement of draglines and bucketwheels, understands the nostalgic appeal change of draglines and bucketwheels as they required a great deal of skill to operate. However, trucks and shovels – even the behemoths employed by Syncrude – provided a nimbleness that added value in mine and the Extraction plant

“Once trucks and shovels became large enough to handle the capacities of ore at Syncrude, it gave us a lot more flexibility in blending the various grades of ore that is so critical to our extraction process,” says Gerald, who now serves as Syncrude’s Manager, Extraction. “Bucketwheel and dragline was very linear in terms of how you planned the mine. Changing to truck and shovel gave us much more flexibility in moving the mine in different projects.”

The precision also allowed Syncrude to begin to reclaim the mine more quickly than the past.

“You can segregate pits a lot more quickly using truck-and-shovel so it’s easier to create pockets where you can place reclamation material more quickly than you could using draglines and bucketwheels,” says Gerald. “You needed to wait for a whole quadrant to be mined out before you could start filling it in.”

In addition to meeting Syncrude’s commitment to responsible development by reclaiming the land it disturbs, Gerald sees the transition to mining with truck and shovel demonstrate its commitment to help its employees adapt to new technologies.

“Where there are new technologies, there’s always new opportunities. We’ll make sure our employees are engaged with new technologies,” he says. “We have highly skilled people who are very willing to try new roles and expand their horizons. We are a very close knit family at Syncrude.”

Lorne, who now spends his days as Syncrude’s apprenticeship coordinator, echoes that sentiment.

“I was reading an article on the CBC website and it talked about the advantages of retraining or reskilling workers as roles change rather than go out and hire new ones. Syncrude was practicing this 30 years ago and it continues today,” Lorne says. “I try to get that out to today’s generation. You are not entitled to anything but opportunities are there if you work smart and take advantage of them. Syncrude will look after you.”