On rainy days in the early 1990s, it was normal for Lorne Wyatt to take a helicopter to work. That’s because wet weather would make the roads inside the Syncrude oilsands mine impassible, and he had to get to his job as a member of a four-person dragline crew.

Wyatt worked on Syncrude’s dragline number two, affectionately known as “Discovery.” The massive piece of equipment — the height of a 25-storey building with a bucket the size of a two-car garage — was used to make the first cut at Syncrude in 1977, and in 1999 it was the first dragline to be retired as the project transitioned to mining with trucks, shovels and hydrotransport.

This summer Syncrude is marking the 20th anniversary of the Discovery’s retirement and the significance of that milestone to its ongoing technology development journey.

In the 1970s the oilsands industry used huge dragline, bucketwheel and conveyor equipment because that was the global standard. But as Syncrude and fellow oilsands miner Suncor found out, the systems became increasingly costly and uneconomic as operations progressed further away from their main processing facilities.

In 1993 Wyatt worked on a field pilot initiated at Syncrude using a pipeline slurry system to replace the conveyor. It worked, and hydrotransport was born, enabling more precise and agile mining operations.

Four years later the technology was implemented commercially for the first time at Syncrude’s North Mine, and it has been implemented at every new oilsands mine ever since.

“In 1997 we started bringing hydrotransport technology in and that really ushered in the start of the transition from the draglines to the truck/shovel operation,” says Syncrude vice-president Greg Fuhr.

“Being one of the first operators early on, you had to develop things and figure it out. It didn’t exist; people weren’t doing it. It’s in our DNA right from the large research centre that we operate. You can’t go somewhere else to find out a solution to an issue, we’ve had to develop it ourselves.”

Fuhr says that not only did trucks and shovels allow for enhanced bitumen production, they also allowed Syncrude to start cleaning up faster.

“In a truck/shovel operation you can get into the reclamation phase much quicker. It allows you to get in there years ahead to start reclaiming than you would in the dragline area,” he says.

At peak in the late 1980s/early 1990s, there were four draglines operating at Syncrude. The last was retired in 2006.

While Discovery still sits on site as part of the project’s Giants of Mining exhibit, the other three were sold to be used for mining operations elsewhere globally either as full units or as parts.

Fuhr says that in recent years, the major technological changes in oilsands mining have been related to tailings treatment.

Wyatt, who now works as Syncrude’s apprenticeship coordinator, says that technological change will impact everyone’s career at some point.

“We coach the young men and women to be ready for that and to take advantage when the opportunity arises,” he says.

Image: Syncrude

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