Having been one of the earlier entrants into the oilsands in the 1970s, Syncrude, one of the largest oilsands operators, has had some practice with reclamation.
Syncrude started mining the oilsands in 1978, and started working toward reclamation the same year. The company’s modus operandi, says company’s spokesperson Cheryl Robb, is “progressive reclamation,” meaning that it starts reclaiming land as soon as possible. Its showcase reclamation project is the 1-sq.-km Gateway Hill, north of Fort McMurray, Alta.
By law, Syncrude is obliged to return all areas that it mines to “equivalent land capacity” condition after mining is completed, and last year, the provincial government certified that the company met this standard at Gateway Hill. Once an area is certified, Syncrude can return it to the Crown.
Syncrude’s oilsands leases are in boreal forest, some of which is wetlands, and some uplands — hilly areas which are often treed. The “equivalent land capacity” standard means that when an oilsands company leaves an area, it must be restored to a mix of wetlands and uplands, but the mix does not have to be strictly identical to the pre-mining condition.
The vegetation on Gateway Hill is now established, with shrubs, bushes and mature trees.
Robb says it takes a long time to establish vegetation on reclaimed land. For example, trees can take as long as 10 or 15 years to mature. Species planted on Gateway Hill include aspen, tamarack, spruce, saskatoon-berry, alder, prickly rose and others. Wildlife has also moved back to the area, including deer, moose, smaller mammals and birds.
One of the more exotic reclamation projects is the Beaver Creek Wood Bison Ranch, which Syncrude populated with a herd of wood bison, currently 300-strong. Since there is still active mining in the area, the bison are fenced in, and the health of the herd is being monitored.
Robb says that Syncrude has reclaimed more than 45 sq. km, land that is in various stages of growth. So far, the company has planted 5 million trees and shrubs. Syncrude consults aboriginal communities about the type of vegetation they would like to see, which can include indigenous and medicinal plants.
One focus of Syncrude’s efforts is the Mildred Lake project, where the north mine is currently active, while the east and west mines have been mined out and are being reclaimed. The east mine covers 11 sq. km, and is about 60 metres deep, while the west mine sits on 5 sq. km and is about 80 metres deep.
The company is filling the pits with tailings. It is using mature fine tails, which are clay particles, as well as composite tails, which are combined with gypsum and sand.
The east mine is now almost completely filled, and Syncrude plans to cover it with sand, and contour the landscape during the summer. The company will then cover it with soil, with planting scheduled for next year. Syncrude also plans to recreate a fen — a type of wetland — on the east mine.
Mildred Lake’s west mine will be covered with mature fine tails, and then capped with a layer of water, turning it into a lake and a number of ponds. Having tried the concept in test ponds, the company expects the area to support vegetation. The lake will not be populated with fish at the start, since the area is salty.
Because Syncrude conducted environmental baseline studies prior to starting operations in 1978, the company will be able to compare the level of different elements in the environment to baseline levels recorded 30 years ago.
Syncrude has spent more than $100 million on reclamation since 2003. The technical leads on the reclamation projects include Ron Lewko — reclamation research leader, Steve Gaudet — environmental affairs leader, and Jim Lorentz — technology development leader, who researched the use of tailings in reclamation. Robb says that Syncrude shares its reclamation know-how with other companies.
However, Syncrude’s environmental record is not without blemish. Last year, about 1,600 migratory ducks died after landing on Syncrude’s Aurora settling ponds and became coated with floating residual bitumen. The company uses noise cannons to deter the birds from landing on its ponds, but the devices were not deployed because of a spring snowstorm.
Since then, Syncrude has improved its procedures to keep the birds away from its ponds. The company is facing both federal and provincial charges in connection with the incident, and is scheduled to answer the charges in provincial court on June 10.
Oilsands Developers Group
The Oilsands Developers Group is an association of 27 companies active in the oilsands. Don Thompson, the association’s president, says that in 40 years of mining, a total area of 530 sq. km has been disturbed, of which 45 sq. km is under active reclamation.
He points out that every mine is required to file a conservation and reclamation plan detailing how the company will go about reclaiming the mine. Members of the association are required to ensure that reclamation plans are on track.
Thompson says that member companies had to undertake reclamation research because of the unique surfaces involved, such as fine tailings and sand surfaces. Considerable research was undertaken at universities in Canada and the U. S. Another area of research tackled on behalf of member companies was the propagation of native vegetation species.
Studies show that wildlife repopulates reclaimed land soon after it is replanted, Thompson says. Small mammals are the first to move in, and as vegetation matures, the animal population changes to match the habitat. The intention of the Beaver Creek Wood Bison Ranch is to show that reclaimed land can support large animals.
Companies are confident that they will be able to reclaim tailings ponds, Thompson says. For example, Suncor Energy, which pioneered the production of oil from the oilsands in 1967, is actively reclaiming its pond No. 1, north of Fort McMurray, with trees and shrubs scheduled to be planted next year.