Growing with the Oil Sands
This Fort McMurray sand and gravel operation has built its business around Alberta’s oil patch.
By Bill Tice
When many Canadians think about Alberta’s Oil Sands, they picture the
big names such as Suncor, Shell, Syncrude and Canadian Natural Resources
When many Canadians think about Alberta’s Oil Sands, they picture the big names such as Suncor, Shell, Syncrude and Canadian Natural Resources Limited (CNRL). These huge multinational corporations play a major role in the economic boom this region of the country has realized, but so do many other smaller companies that support the major oil producers.
|TBG will produce two to three million tonnes of product annually for the oil sands and another million tonnes per year for local infrastructure projects around Fort McMurray. Photo courtesy of Wally Fownes, TBG Contracting.|
“We have been in this region since the mid-1960s and we have had a full-time presence here for almost 20 years,” explains Wally Fownes, general manager of TBG Contracting, which is one of those smaller operations. TBG produces sand, gravel and limestone for the major oil producers and for the City of Fort McMurray. “We will do two to three million tonnes annually for the oil companies and another million tonnes per year for infrastructure work in the city,” Fownes adds, while showing historic black and white photos of TBG excavation and processing equipment being brought to the region by barge on the Athabasca River. “This is how we brought the equipment here before an all-weather gravel road was completed in 1967,” he explains while viewing the photos and adding that today, it’s a different story as Fort McMurray and the oil sands are connected to Edmonton and beyond by a major highway (Alberta Highway 63), which brings people, equipment and supplies to the area on a daily basis.
TBG started in Edmonton in the mid-1950s and was originally called Twin Bridges Gravel due to the location of its gravel pit, which was close to a pair of bridges in the city’s downtown area. Today, much of TBG’s operations are in the area around Fort McMurray, which is known as the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo and in 1995, TBG opened a permanent office in Fort McMurray, making the region its operational base.
TBG was acquired from its original owners by the Warren Group of Companies in 1972 before becoming a division of Lafarge Canada Inc. in 2001.
As the appetite for Alberta oil continued to grow so did TBG, and today the company runs several operations in the region, including two major crushing, screening and washing plants at Athabasca Minerals’ Susan Lake site, which is ranked as Canada’s largest aggregates operation.
|Wally Fownes at the Susan Lake site near Fort McMurray.|
“Everything is ‘on demand’ up here so all of our plants are portable,” Fownes explains. “Our largest operation at Susan Lake produces mainly 20-millimetre, 40-millimetre and 75-millimetre product. These are our best-selling sizes and we provide a lot of the 40-millimetre product to the mines for haul roads within the oil sands operations.”
The haul roads Fownes describes are typically 30 metres wide and require enough aggregates to support a 350-tonne rock truck carrying a 350-tonne load. “Normally they will use a base of clay or limestone and then a metre of granular base on top of that,” he explains. “It adds up to a lot of aggregates.”
At the largest of TBG’s Susan Lake operations, crews feed the crusher with a Caterpillar 988 loader while a smaller Cat 980 is used as a back -up and for clean–up. The crusher, which is a 30-in. x 54-in. jaw crusher from Elrus, is followed by an Elrus surge bin, which feeds a 6-ft. x 20-ft. two-deck scalping screen that removes the sand. The rock goes to a Sandvik S4800 Gyrocone, a twin-screen chassis with a pair of 6-ft. x 20-ft. Eljay finishing screens that are close circuited with a Sandvik H6800 finishing cone. Programmable Thor radial stackers round out the operation. Some of the products are then trucked to a nearby wash plant. Fownes says they have an identical crushing operation that is currently at Suncor’s local site where it processes limestone.
TBG’s third portable operation is a smaller setup, which is also at Susan Lake. It handles mainly larger material (75 mm), which Fownes says helps them keep their tonnage up. It also features a 30-in. x 54-in. Elrus crusher, a two-deck scalping screen and an Elrus 2054 jaw crusher. “This is a bit unusual, but from here we go to twin 5-ft. x 18-ft. Elrus screen decks and then to a 4-ft. cone crusher and Superior stackers.”
TBG updates its equipment on a regular basis and recently acquired two new Elrus crushers along with a new Cat 988H and a pair of 980H loaders. They also just acquired a Komatsu 600 loader and two Komatsu 500 loaders from SMS Equipment, and a new power van and tower van from Elrus.
Fownes says TBG’s main customers in the area include Suncor, CNRL, Syncrude, Shell and other oil companies operating in the region. They also supply crushed rock to Lafarge’s local concrete plants and provide materials to the regional governments for the rapidly growing infrastructure projects in the area. With so much production in the oil sands and the surge of infrastructure projects in the region, material supply close to Fort McMurray has been difficult to source, so a few years ago TBG started extracting rock from a pit east of the Athabasca River. The only problem was the town is situated on the west side of the river and there are no bridges close enough to make hauling the aggregate economically viable, so Fownes says TBG got creative and started building ice bridges during the winter months to move the rock to town.
|TBG’s largest operation at Susan Lake features Thor radial stackers.|
“We will typically build an ice bridge over the Athabasca River every couple of years,” he explains. “Our Peden Pit is close to town, but it is across the river and we will normally haul around 120,000 tonnes to stockpile for use in the summer months.”
Using local crews, TBG will start building the ice bride in mid-December and it will normally be finished by early January. “We will run flooding operations for 12 hours per day when we are building the bridges,” says Fownes. “We need the ice to be about 50 inches thick before we start hauling and we check the thickness on a daily basis.”
Between the oil sands business, infrastructure work and supplying Lafarge’s concrete operations in the region, Fownes says TBG has no problem staying busy year round. He says they have about 75 employees, including office staff and production crew members in the field, and he adds that they also keep 75 trucking owner operators busy with their hauling operations. As for shifts, TBG runs two shifts that work 10 days on and then they have four days off. “We try to run the shifts back to back with a hot crew change, especially in the winter, because if you shut your machines down, it can take hours to get everything up and running again.”
Even when they take their four days off, Fownes says they will use portable generators or hot boxes to keep the equipment warm and to aid in startup.
Like most companies in the Fort McMurray area, Fownes says one of the biggest challenges TBG faces is recruitment of new employees. “The high cost of housing in the Fort McMurray area is prohibitive to young people setting up so finding skilled operators that will come here is one of the biggest hurdles we face,” he explains, while adding that they look for people who want to call Fort McMurray home and will get involved in the local community.
|TBG set up and tested some new equipment late last year at Susan Lake. Photo courtesy of Wally Fownes, TBG Contracting.|
“Being part of the community is big for us as a company so we look for employees that will do the same,” Fownes says. “In addition to sponsoring local ringette and volleyball, we also buy season tickets to the Oil Barons, which is the local Jr. A hockey team, we support local golf tournaments for charity and we sponsor major events in the region.”
But one of the biggest community events for TBG is the “special delivery” they make annually to the First Nations community at Chipewyan Lake, which is a 3.5 hour drive (each way) northwest of Fort McMurray.
Just before Christmas every year for the past eight years, Fownes and one other employee have provided the much-needed delivery service to the Chipewyan Lake community for a local program called Santas Anonymous. TBG provides the manpower and the vehicles required to make the often treacherous trip, most of which is through frozen muskeg and primitive snow covered roads. Their contribution is to take two Ford F-350 pickups and load them up with food, toys and necessities that have been collected through the program by Father Patrick Mercredi High School in Fort McMurray, and deliver them to the Chipewyan Lake community, which numbers around 60 people.
The program provides needy families all over the Wood Buffalo Region with a traditional Christmas dinner and makes sure that kids under 18 each receive at least two wrapped toys. Families with babies receive food, diapers and clothing. Many of the communities are on major roads, making the deliveries fairly routine, but before TBG stepped up, Santa’s Anonymous often found it difficult to find volunteers that could safely make the Chipewyan run. “We get really excited every year about this program,” Fownes explains. “It is a great cause and although it can be challenging, we enjoy doing it.”
Safety is also big at TBG and Fownes reports that they just hit 200,000 hours incident- and accident-free in late 2011.
|TBG’s largest operation at Susan Lake is a highly efficient set-up that produces aggregates primarily for companies in the oil sands.|
“Because safety is such a high priority at all of the oil sands operations, contractors like us are expected to meet the same safety standards as the major companies,” he says. “However, we are just fine with that. Safety is just part of the job. We have pre-startup inspections, regular audits, we are in the COR program and we participate in the Alberta Construction Safety Association. Plus, for a small company, we have a huge amount of safety resources available to us as part of Lafarge. We are a ‘small, large company’ where we operate like a small local company but have lots of resources we can pull from Lafarge when needed.”
Although Fownes is the first to admit that working in the oil sands can be hectic, he says he wouldn’t have it any other way. “When you are working in this business, every day can be a challenge, but it is also rewarding,” concludes Fownes. “Everything that goes on here happens at a very fast pace and whoever can react the quickest will normally get the work. It’s never boring. We go from working on new pilot projects to building ice bridges, but for me, and most of the people that work at TBG, that’s the way we like it.”
|Half a Century with TBG|
TBG Contracting has been in the aggregates business for about 60 years, and Harold Pinske has been with the company for much of that time.
Pinske, who is 73, now works on a contract basis for TBG’s Fort McMurray, Alberta operation. He started with the company in 1961 when he was in his early 20s and celebrated the half-century milestone with TBG last year. “I go back a long way with TBG,” Pinske says. “When I first started working, I had my own welding truck and I ended up in Squaw Rapids, Saskatchewan. To make ends meet, I also worked a couple of other jobs, including running a crusher for a company called Manix and Associates Contracting. I worked with a fellow at Manix by the name of Ernie Haug, who was from Edmonton. When our work at Manix finished, Ernie went back to Edmonton and started working for Twin Bridges Gravel and I went to work for the County of Prince Albert with my welding truck. Not long after that, I got a call from Ernie asking me to come to Edmonton and take a job with Twin Bridges. He sent two Mack trucks to pick up my stuff and I have worked for TBG ever since.”
For most of his time at TBG, Pinske was a full-time employee. When he turned 65, he says “they simply changed the paperwork,” as he had reached the official retirement age. “Nothing really changed except I became a contract employee,” he explains. “I didn’t even miss a day and continued on full time. Actually, I think I’m busier now than I have ever been.”
Pinske, who is the equipment manager for the Fort McMurray operation, spends most of his days maintaining and repairing TBG’s crushing and screening equipment. He lives in Edmonton and also has a hobby farm with his wife Vivian and commutes on a weekly basis to Fort McMurray. He heads out from Edmonton every Sunday afternoon, preferring to make the 4.5 hour drive during the daylight hours and then heads back to Edmonton on Thursday afternoon, or Friday morning, depending on what parts need to go to Edmonton with him. “I’m really well connected at the repair shops in Edmonton, so when I go home, I quite often take parts with me and get them repaired on Friday or over the weekend and then bring them back with me on Sunday,” Pinske says.
When he’s in Fort McMurray, Pinske stays at the Quality Inn. It’s really his home away from home as he says he has had the same room at the hotel for 20 years and knows all of the staff. “I think Vivian likes it that I’m away from home for a few days at a time as it gives her peace and quiet,” Pinske jokes. “But I have to say, I couldn’t do this without her. We have cattle and horses on our hobby farm and she looks after them while I’m here.”
For Pinske, there have been a lot of changes in Fort McMurray since he first started coming here in the 1960s.
“When I first came here, there was only a winter road so all of the equipment came by train from Edmonton to Lac La Biche and then on to Fort McMurray,” he says. “Once it got here, it was put on barges that would transport it up the Athabasca River to the oil sands area. It took a week to get everything here and then another week before it was up and running.”
Pinske, who has two children, four grandchildren and two great grandchildren, says he does think about retiring at some point. But it’s not going to be anytime soon. “My family are all after me to quit, but there is so much to do here and I am so involved with everything that it’s not fair to dump it on someone else. I believe in finishing what you start, and we have some new crushers coming and I want to be part of that,” he adds with a smile. “I need to make sure they are running the way we want them to.”