Is Oil Sands Reclamation a “Mission Impossible”?

Reclamation blends 100 years of reclamation science with modern advances in anthroposolic soils and integrated sciences.

When oil sands reclamation critics start to talk about impossibility of restoring the “the massive land disturbance” of oil sands mining, Dr. Anne Naeth of the University of Alberta calmly directs their attention to agriculture.

“We have been living with and accepting the massive disturbance of land through agricultural activities for over a hundred years in North America and for centuries in Europe. It’s just that we called it ‘settlement’,” says Dr. Naeth. “We forget that people came and plowed, cut trees, and began natural resource development. That has all been acceptable.”

Clearly the scope of global “settlement” land disturbance is much greater than that of the oil sands.

Dr. Naeth is a professor in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences and the University of Alberta. She is a professional biologist and agrologist and her research program focuses on land reclamation and ecological restoration. She was one of the panelists at an evening public lecture on “Managing the Oil Sands Environmental Footprint” through the Calgary Center of the University of Alberta.

“I love doing talks like this,” she exclaims. “Reclamation work is fascinating and we are having many successes in the fields that no one talks about.”

Dr. Naeth presented images of a number of diverse test sites, some that assess a certain plant’s ability to thrive in restored land, some that assess ‘built’ soil – mixes of various combinations of dried tailings from the oil sands combined with peat moss and ‘overburden’ (the removed natural soil cover).

“I’m sure it will surprise many people to know that at a recent study we had over 70 species of natural plant life growing in fine tailings alone. Now some will say those plants might grow but they won’t thrive, however I can tell you the power of nature is amazing. We’re finding that by adding appropriate organic waste you can build appropriate soils that replicate natural soil development.”

According to Dr. Naeth, the science of reclamation enables her team to do in 30 years what it would take nature 1,000 years to do.

“The anthroposolic (human-made) soils and blend of native seeds then respond to external environmental factors like precipitation, water cycling, nutrient cycling and organic matter decomposition, and at some point the natural processes take over.”

Many critics question the so-called “science” of reclamation, believing it to be an entirely new field and thus unproven. Dr. Neath disagrees. According to her, reclamation as an intentional method was in process as early as the 1880s and the discipline has developed since.

“When I began working in this field some 30 years ago, it was becoming known as ‘reclamation.'” Yet Dr. Neath has worked at hydrocarbon related sites around the world and across North America for decades – dealing with issues of land disturbances, spills and restoration. She cites the Gregg River Mines reclamation as a successful coal pit-mining example.

“We’ve had great successes in minimizing the environmental impact, returning disturbed soil to capacity and restoring wildlife and their habitat.”

Dr. Neath points out that one bone of contention with the more vociferous environmentalists is ‘what constitutes reclamation’? The hard-liners demand a return to the land’s original state; others who seek a middle ground want the land returned to an equivalent capacity.

Dr. Neath points out that there are catastrophic natural events that irreversibly alter the landscape – forest or prairie fires, severe drought, or massive beaver dams.

“No matter what the cause, you’re not going to rebuild exactly what was there,” she states, “but that doesn’t mean the land won’t return to viability.”

Reclamation combines the knowledge of many disciplines – agrologists, hydrologists, geologists, aquatics and wildlife experts. Agrologists like Dr. Naeth concentrate on developing the right soil combinations, she is also an expert in natural vegetation and tries to create the right seed mix – which ironically requires attracting the wildlife back to the reclaimed land to fertilize the soil with natural manure.

“Animal manure is full of local seeds, scarified and ready for planting and germination,” says Dr. Naeth.

Development begins with molds, mushrooms and spores that offer essential micronutrients and processes that empower the earth to regenerate life. On a larger scale, experimental work in scattering LFH – typical forest floor litter in various states of decay – has demonstrated that this provides housing and nutrients for the tiny elements of life, as well as reducing erosion due to wind and water run-off.

On a larger scale, the overburden is planted with a crop of barley – a tasty treat to lure wildlife back to a new home and one that provides further ground clutter and strong roots to maintain the new soil in place.

“We’ve actually learned a lot from common agricultural practices that have been developed over the past 100 years here,” points out Dr. Neath. “No one summer-fallows their fields anymore for instance – that was a key cause of erosion and soil degradation in the drought of the Dirty Thirties.”

A key point in her work and presentation is that reclamation practices work with nature.

“We’ve visited a few abandoned sites from 20 or 30 years ago in the Fort McMurray area,” says Dr. Naeth, “and we were impressed with how nature was taking over with the building blocks, even though the plant diversity was lower than at our planned reclamations.”

Dr. Naeth looks forward to being able to offer public tours and field trips to her research sites. Presently these sites have restricted access as they are near active mining work sites.

Naeth’s team combines practical known methods, similar to those applied to agricultural land, with innovative thinking and scientific experimentation.

“We study how nature keeps things moving and apply that knowledge in the field. If you don’t believe me, take a look at how nature is responding in abandoned lots and industrialized areas in Detroit. Natural forces are magnificent. In our work, we provide the essential building blocks to enhance that natural power.”

Dr. Naeth also notes that human beings are impatient, but nature is not.

“If no one touched the mined sites for decades, nature would create her own form of restoration; however our restoration methods are intentional,” says Naeth. “We want to provide the means for accelerated restoration that maintains or enhances the biodiversity in most forms, while establishing a suitable replica of natural wetlands function. This means addressing the hydrology (water flows), water retention and recharge, filtration, and natural environments for regional plants and wildlife.”

Based on the evidence, oil sands reclamation is well in progress. She points out that in addition to the certified reclaimed 104 hectares of land, some 62 square kilometers have been reclaimed, but are not yet certified; an extended observation period is required by the Alberta government prior to certification in order to demonstrate that the eco-systems have returned to capacity without further human intervention.

“Oil sands land disturbance challenges are well within the scope of our experience and knowledge.”

Originally published on Yahoo Contributor.


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