Back to nature a tricky task
FORT MCMURRAY - In the checkerboard of test ponds at Syncrude's wetland research site, Mother Nature has won some games and lost others.
Among the squares, there are certain ones with barely a sprig of green poking out from the silty water.
Other experimental combinations are more successful, though it takes a scientific eye to pick out the real winners. That's because the target is the recreation of a specific kind of wetland, called a fen. A fen is a wetland that is fed by groundwater, which is a heck of a thing to recreate in a landscape that was dug up extensively and then, in some cases, filled in with tailings.
Oilsands operations are increasingly striving to reach these milestones, partly because government is ordering them to do it in their approvals, but also because there is mounting pressure to improve the environmental image of oilsands development.
"Reclamation is happening at a faster pace these days," said Nathan Lemphers, a technical and policy analyst with the Pembina Institute and author of a study released last week on reclamation titled Toxic Liability. "Companies are spending much more on their reclamation. If you look at Syncrude's budget over the last seven years, their annual budget on reclamation has increased seven-fold."
The company maintains its reclamation efforts have been consistent and that it began its first reclamation project in 1983, just five years after it began production. Although it won't specify how much of the $97 million spent on reclamation last year was lavished on wetland research, it's obvious that its employees take pride in that work and the beginnings of a 52-hectare wetland, which will feature the Sandhill fen as a centre-piece. "We're learning a tremendous amount about what material we should use and what we'll get back," said Robert Vassov, Syncrude's senior reclamation scientist, as a few small ducks wheel around, scoping out the research site.
The experiments have been going on for two years and involve independent scientists, such as Dale Vitt, a former University of Alberta botanist now based at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. It's an effort that became a requirement for Syncrude in 2007, when the Alberta government added more specific wetlands reclamation tasks to its approval conditions.
It's not easy, though. Even the test plots that show thick cattail growth are not really a sign of success. Vitt said this is not a species that belongs in a fen. But there are four or five species that do well in some of the test plots, if a layer of mineral soil and peat is put down and if the salinity can be controlled. Tailings ponds and process water are salty, silty and tainted with toxic organic compounds, but if these factors are controlled and the fen species are planted or seeded ahead of the cattails, Vitt said the research shows that a fen can be created on a former oilsands mining site. Of course, it takes time. A fen naturally has a lot of diversity and these species don't all move in right away. But if the first few species get established, Vitt said, they provide cover for the other species in a fulfilment of that saying -- If you build it, they will come. It could take a long time for something like an original fen to become established, though.
"I think we have to make these initial attempts to see if these things work to the best of our ability," he said. "If you're ultracritical, you could say that these kinds of terraforming experiments, recreating ecosystems and all the processes that ecosystems have, can't be done, and I guess I would argue I'm not sure anybody's ever tried this ... Let's try it and let's learn from our mistakes and the sooner we get the first mistakes made, the sooner we'll move on to understanding how to do it."
Over at its East Mine area, the company has already landscaped hammocks of tailings and capped them with soil. The soil is covered with forest-floor plants, seeds, roots and fibres. Then that is covered with woody debris. Vassov enthusiastically reported that plants were sprouting under some of the debris already, likely because it held on to some moisture.
While Syncrude and the researchers wrestle with this tricky science, expectations among environmentalists and First Nations people are high. Lemphers said 40 per cent of the oilsands minable region was once bogs and fens, and Albertans and other Canadians expect the land to be restored back to what it was before mining took place.
Syncrude spokeswoman Cheryl Robb said the provincial government has been bringing in more rigorous reclamation requirements over the last few years, affecting everything from soil salvaging when it strips a mine site to the thickness of the soil cap that it places back on a reclaimed area. This explains, in large part, why reclamation spending has increased so much, she said.
"I think what you're seeing is a situation where industry has matured over the past number of decades and so has our knowledge of reclamation, and we're just updating our policies to better reflect this," said Chris Bourdeau, an Alberta Environment spokesman. "We're always looking for ways to improve and following the continuous improvement side of things we can do more and we are doing more and we're taking steps forward, especially when it comes to reclamation."
The ERCB has also tried to speed up aspects of reclamation, targeting tailings ponds with a new directive last year that required companies to produce less tailings and allow these vast holding areas to be reclaimed more quickly. So far, oilsands operators have committed more than $2 billion in upgrades to comply with the directive, said the board. Tailings enclosures now cover an area of 170 square kilometres. But only Suncor has been able to come up with plans that will meet the directive's most immediate targets. In recent months, the board has announced approved tailings plans in which companies don't meet the annual reduction requirements right away, but then achieve a cumulative overall tailings reduction that equals or exceeds their directive in later years. The latest plan of this nature, for Shell's Muskeg River project, was released Monday.
Pembina Institute executive director Marlo Raynolds said this is yet another sign that most oilsands companies are not serious about deploying and commercializing the best-in-class technology that could take care of, or prevent, environmental messes that could be a liability to Albertans in the future.
This concern about reclaiming tailings ponds is one reason Suncor is going to great lengths later this week to make a show of exactly that. It would be the first tailings pond to be reclaimed. Raynolds said they have learned that only five per cent of the tailings in the pond had to be moved to another pond before it could be reclaimed.
And though that material would fill the Toronto SkyDome six times, he acknowledged that this reclamation does represent progress.
One thing all parties seem to agree on is that there needs to be more transparency about progressive reclamation to give Albertans more of a sense of how reclamation is proceeding, in all its various stages.
"Right now, it's really an on/off switch," explained Greg Stringham, a vice-president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. "Either you've reclaimed and you got your certificate -- which we know is a very small area, it's just (Syncrude's 104-hectare) Gateway Hill area -- or it's off and you haven't reclaimed it."
But everyone knows the state of reclamation throughout these mines that have been in place for 30 or more years is really all across the spectrum, he said. "So there are some that are just brand new, but there are others that are partially reclaimed, so they have the pit filled back in, but they haven't put the dirt and the trees back on top. Or there are some that are actually fully reclaimed, but it hasn't been certified yet, but it's still adjacent to or in the middle of their current operations."
Ultimately, though, Albertans should only be reassured by the government sign-off on a reclamation certificate, said Lemphers.
"If there is any lingering contamination, the responsibility to clean that up is then placed on the Crown."
BY THE NUMBERS
Breakdown of reclamation of oilsands mining areas in hectares in 2009:
- -Cleared: 17,912
- -Disturbed (used for mine or plant purposes): 40,859
- -Ready for reclamation: (no longer used for mine or plant purposes) 944
- -Soils placed: 1,015
- -Temporary reclamation: 854
- -Permanent reclamation: 4,654
- -Certified: 104