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Wetlands experts leaving legacy in Alberta oil sands
A UWindsor biologist’s research team is making its mark in the oil sands of Alberta, recommending ways of leaving behind a legacy of green space that might otherwise be desolate wasteland as a result of mining operations there.
Biology professor Jan Ciborowski leads a team of scientists from four Canadian universities working together with six major petroleum companies on a five-year, $3.8-million project to study and suggest the best ways to turn the mined landscape back into healthy wetland ecosystems.
Rather than falling on deaf ears, mining companies are taking heed of those suggestions, working collaboratively with project researchers, as well as their own scientists—some of them former students affiliated with the project and hired for their expertise—doing what they can to return the areas they’ve mined to their natural state.
“Everybody really believes in what we’re doing,” said Dr. Ciborowski, whose team includes researchers from the universities of Waterloo, Alberta and Saskatchewan, as well as 20 graduate students and six postdoctoral fellows. “The oil sands industry sponsors are not just paying lip service. They’re very sincere about this. They’re on the ground, working with our scientists because they believe in them.”
Known as Carbon Dynamics, Food Web Structure and Reclamation Strategies in Athabasca Oil Sands Wetlands, the project documents how recreating watersheds from mined areas with various re-vegetation strategies and reclamation materials affects the rate at which wetlands mature, as well as how that process changes the development of plant and animal life.
Tailings ponds are used to store residue left over from the process of extracting bitumen from the ore that’s been strip-mined from the ground and used to produce oil. Refining companies are under increased regulatory pressure to restore those ponds and the surrounding landscape as closely to their original condition as they can.
The project began in 2005 and already has one very large feather in its cap. Christine Daly, one of Ciborowski’s former students, is now a research coordinator in Suncor's reclamation department and helped transform one of the company's tailings ponds near Fort McMurray into a 220-hectare watershed, marking the first time such an effort has been successfully completed in Canada. Ciborowski said the project is a “poster child for reclamation activities in the area.”
Carla Wytrykush, another of Ciborowski’s grad students, was hired by Syncrude and is designing a 50-hectare wetland on one of its former tailings lakes. In fact, oil sands companies so far have hired six of the project’s students and post-doctoral fellows—four of them from UWindsor—to research and management positions associated with environmental restoration, he said.
In addition to financial support from universities involved in the project, funding includes $924,000 from the Natural Sciences and Sciences Research Council and money from Albian Sands Energy Inc., Canadian Natural Resources Limited, Imperial Oil Resources, Petro-Canada Oil Sands Inc., Syncrude Canada Ltd., Suncor Energy Inc. and Total E&P Canada Ltd.
“It’s exciting to be able to put together a research effort that involves so many people,” said Ciborowski. “Not only have we done it, but we’ve done it successfully. We’ve got some answers and it looks like people are paying attention and making use of them in their planning and development, and that’s very rewarding.”