The mining industry is a dynamic, exciting, and an amazingly diverse sector with more than 120 occupations ranging from skilled trades to high tech professionals.

If mining is an industry you are considering a career in, have you considered what it would be like to be an Environmental Engineer in Canada?



Martin Zhekov, an Environmental Engineer in Fort McMurray tells us all about his job.

By: Martin Zhekov

“I have so much that I remember and so many stories, that it is hard to combine them in one particular day. Maybe if I share some moments it will be more beneficial for everyone. Still I do not know where to start. I have so many stories of the years I spend in Fort McMurray, and so many interesting memories, and every one of them has a really interesting outcome, and a lesson to learn.

I had been working for this particular company for several years between 2011 and 2016 and now from the time perspective I am assuming these years were some of the most beneficial in terms of experience, self development and prosperity. In addition, lessons learned there help me a lot in my next job. The company itself was in the Fort MacMurray region and many people around blame the oil sands for numerous issues but they forget that Fort Mac Murray is one of the major drivers of the Canadian economy. Fort Mac has plenty to give and plenty to take. Still I considered this experience as a positive in my life and can never say this was wasted time. Because of this I have plenty of good memories to remember and don’t know where to start.

I will start from the moment I joined the company and had to fly in for the first time to my new working place. The first impression was that it was a dirty, dusty and muddy place where everyone was busy with unachievable accomplishments. People were dressed very simply, wearing jeans, shirts, coveralls and those still toe shoes, which I have seen only on the construction sites in Calgary. But that is probably one of the most vivid memories I have since I was so excited that I was going to “touch the steel” after two years without a decent job. Basically the day started immediately after I arrived from the plane. People were waiting for someone to fill up my position and a huge amount of documentation was put aside waiting for the “new guy” to start dealing with. I still remember the first three papers I took care of were Quality Assurance Programs for CEMS units. The programs were developed up to a point, but then left due to a lack of time and resources. It took me almost a year to finish this documentation and again not because it was only 50 pages for each of them, but because there were several other very important things that were needed to be finished.

Basically the QAPrograms were only the beginning of the journey named CEMS units and being Custodian of CEMS units. Back then I still remember we were delayed on the stack tests and harsh organization had to be accommodated in order to finish them as per the requirements of Alberta Environment and Water (yes that was the name back then). The day of our last survey was December 28 and I had to organize everything from appointing a third party contractor to providing a generator to power them to complete the RATA. Such organization was very complicated for a newbie in this industry, and without help provided from the team, it was probably going to fail. Of course, the organization did not start on this particular day and I had been in communication with the contractor company before, but there were still small things that needed to be done, like: booking the generator, providing someone to open the probe flange on the stack, and arranging vehicle passes and work permits. All of these are a very crucial part and if not organized well they are able to ruin the survey on this particular day. But still, I have that very remarkable memory where I organized this survey and everything went pretty well. And I was only two months in this company.

Not everything was smooth though in the future years. I still remember a day in December where the contractor arrived and the outside temperature was -32 degrees so I had to arrange a tent to put in their equipment in on the stack platform. The weather was so extreme that some of the equipment was freezing on the platform and only this tent was able to cover and provide some a heated environment so they could conduct the survey. It was an extremely cold December and I was under pressure again to meet the deadline for completing this survey due to the regulations. As everyone knows extreme cold effects not only the  human senses but  the machinery too. There was a separate case when the company performing stack testing called me on the radio and said: “Martin, we have setup everything but I doubt we will be able to finish all of the nine runs today”. My reply was: “How come? Its only 0800 am you have plenty of time today?”. The reply was: “It is too cold outside and I doubt the analyzers will be warm up in less than 4 hours from now. Which is around 1200 pm and then we have 9 runs by 30 minutes with 15 minutes window for calibration. It goes somewhere around 0500 pm which is already dark period and I am not willing for my people to climb the stack up and down with low visibility.” Should I mention that this brought another avalanche of issues related to the booking and rebooking of the generator, the electrician to ground it and disground it and it had to be rescheduled and my day instead of 0400 pm ended up at 0700 pm.

Such disturbances were not uncommon even for the summer days. I usually started booking the companies for stack testing somewhere in February every year. Due to high activities in the region and due to plenty of other opportunities, not too many people are willing to perform this job. That’s why in February many contractors performing stack testing were booked already for the whole year. For example, sometimes even with my schedule the operations were willing to book them for furnace performance testing and then I had to swing around the contractor schedule and the operations schedule to perform this stack test. And do you know how difficult is to book generator during the summer season, when everyone is trying to use the daylight and compete with the deadlines. Alternatively, do you know that the turnover of the drivers in Fort Mac and especially those delivering generators is so high, that people even were changing on the weekly basis. The week before you go back home you explained it all to the dispatcher and showed the driver where he is supposed to deliver your generator, yet coming back from your days off you find that the driver is gone, and no one can carry the delivery and you end up having to do it yourself.

The interesting part of all this is that I still remember these days with smile and positive matter. I can recall days when the electrical support was so busy and I would have to call them on the radio at least five times until they hated me to come and ground the generator. Even though I had placed my order three months in advance. There was also a day when the contractor arrived and the organization was almost perfect but they were not able to start right away. and this of course disturbed the whole schedule and this was just because the battery of the generator was not working. You can imagine what effort is to get another one in such a busy place.

While there was always plenty of preparation around the stack testing, the work in office would also be ongoing. Since the company I was working for had been regulated from Alberta Energy Regulator (current name of the Alberta Resource and Conservation Board and Alberta Environment and Water) it was requiring a lot of communication with them. Every flaring, exceedance, release on the ground or H2S release was reported to AER and followed by 7 days letter. This of course involved a certain amount of documentation including some of the investigations which again consumed time and resources. Most of the time I was involved with air emissions exceedances and everything related with air emissions. Every letter had to be reviewed and submitted accordingly, and I could say our company was in very good standing with them. Also I have to say that my regular shift was including and on-call responsibilities which would involve calls during the night at 0200 am with release which I had to release. Imagine the whole day working around stack testing with the contractor outside and eventually getting to bed exhausted, and someone then calling you on the phone for release of 2 m3 of waste water or process water on the ground. Once the process was started you had to record everything in the book from the beginning. Then having to call AER and report this to the person on call there what happened and when this will be ceased and how we proceeded with it. And sometimes you have to call back to the originator and ask him/her a question being asked from AER. Well I doubt anyone can go to sleep when phone rings at 0200 am and you have to transfer a lot of information around until 0220 am.

Of course, there were some days in the office that were calm and peaceful but that wasn’t  happening a lot. In such periods I usually tried to help out our wildlife team when they had a pretty busy season, and I really have very good memories from these assignments too. I do also recall the days when myself and the wildlife person have to haze away a bear just because it was entering the plant premises and just because it was Sunday and no one else besides me and him were  in the office. Hazing away bears alone is not an option at all. Going out, screaming, and shouting at the poor animal and using horns is fun but with lot of adrenaline involved. Also helping the wildlife folks with the planting of fish antenna and understand part of their job. There were days when I was replacing propane bottles for bird cannons around the lakes and learning how to check the cannons as well. There were some days where there were bird sweeping programs which involved searching for birds nests at the potentially new developed area.

From all of the said above I would like to say that working in Fort Mac was challenging but rewarding, and it definitely exceeded my expectations in terms of a challenging environment and time consuming. The rewarding part was not only the financial stability and prosperity, but also the part where I was able to see my how my decisions improved the company and the performance of the team. This was very rewarding experience for me and for my development as a specialist”.


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