The Journey from Mordor to the Shire
In February, Lee Barbour was awarded an industrial research chair to provide insights into the performance of reclaimed mining areas.
Photo by Liam Richards
College of Engineering professor and alumnus Lee Barbour is using a new industrial research chair to help turn Mordor-like oil sands mines back into the Shire.
A few years ago, Lee Barbour (BE’79, MSc’81, PhD’87) and his wife Twila were driving up to an oil sands mine north of Fort McMurray where Barbour was doing research into mine site reclamation. Topping a small rise, they came across a panoramic view of the mine—and it wasn’t pretty. The highway stretched like a “long causeway between two gaping open pits steaming with newly placed tailings, the dark shadow and blinking lights of the refinery facing us at the end of the causeway,” Barbour said. “For a moment, we felt like hobbits heading on a quest towards Mordor.”
Yet this landscape is the focus of Barbour’s research efforts— and has been so for over10 years. He wanted his wife to see an active oil sands mine; he also wanted her to see how his research was helping return the land to a natural state. He took her to Bill’s Lake, a reclaimed wetland on a former Syncrude mine site. It is named after the late Bill Stolte, a U of S hydrologist and Barbour’s former colleague.
“Bill’s Lake looks a lot more like the Shire,” he said. “I noticed how her face lightened as we sat by a beautiful wetland, surrounded by trees and grasses, watching muskrats in the wetland with birds overhead.”
The analogy to Mordor and the Shire, from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, is one Barbour frequently uses when talking about his work. He’s not blind to the environmental impact of oil sands development, but as an engineer he understands the enormous economic benefit to Canada. He also sees how the issue is polarizing Canadian opinion. He’s met people who are pro oil sands development no matter what the environmental cost, and he’s met people who are against oil sands development no matter what the economic cost.
“Some choose to see only Mordor—others only dream of the Shire. There are lots of good reasons to believe that there is a path between Mordor and the Shire,” he said. “When my wife got to see an oil sands mine and the reclaimed wetland at Bill’s Lake on the same day, I could see hope return to her face.”
Jointly Funded Research
In February, the University of Saskatchewan announced that Barbour had been awarded a $2.6-million industrial research chair in Hydrogeological Characterization of Oil Sands Mine Closure Landforms. Jointly funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and Syncrude, with another $1 million in in-kind support from the university and Syncrude, the research chair will provide insights into the performance of reclaimed mining areas. Understanding the long-term challenges and impacts of oil sands development is critical because the industry could be operating in northern Alberta for the next 100 years.
Barbour’s interest in mine reclamation research goes back to his days as a young faculty member when he co-founded the Unsaturated Soils Group with his former PhD supervisor, Del Fredlund (BE’62), and another young faculty member, Ward Wilson. Fredlund was one of the world’s leading experts on soil hydrology and a mentor of Barbour’s early interest in the workings of mine closure covers—the systems and materials used to establish sustainable ecosystems on former mine site areas.
Barbour’s work attracted the attention of Syncrude in the late 1990s. “The initial focus of our work with Syncrude was the effectiveness of the different covers in storing water and sustaining an upland forest environment. As we’ve grown more confident in our understanding of how the covers work, we shifted to investigating how much water is moving through the reclaimed mine landforms. With the new research chair, we are extending on earlier work by tracking the movement of water deep into reconstructed landforms until its eventual release to adjacent surface water.
“The research will assist the industry in developing strategies to ensure that water released from mine closure landforms will not have a detrimental impact on the receiving environment. It will also work to develop innovative methods of monitoring groundwater recharge into disturbed landforms— methods that can be applied not only at oil sands mines but at a range of other mine sites as well,” Barbour said.
The research site is located 35 kilometres north of Fort McMurray on two watersheds, part of a 3,400-hectare stretch of permanently reclaimed land at Syncrude’s Mildred Lake facility. It will also include new reclaimed areas, one of which features a 17-hectare fen pilot project that represents the oil sands industry’s first attempt at creating a wetland from the ground up.
“By exploring the magnitude, rate, pathway and chemistry of groundwater in reclaimed areas, we hope to provide oil sands developers like Syncrude with the information and tools they need to create new landscapes that are sustainable and capable of supporting natural processes,” he explained.
Building on a Solid Reputation
Barbour often reminds young engineers that research requires co-operative relationships among government, industry and university, as well as among scientists, engineers, graduate students and industry representatives. “For example, when we first established our research sites in the 1990s, it didn’t take long to realize that while we worked in civil and hydrological engineering, there were many other interesting questions that needed answering. We needed to expand our collaboration, so we reached out to others.”
Today, this group of “others” includes Jim Hendry (geology) and Bing Si (soil science) from the U of S, Garth van der Kamp and Len Wassenaar from Environment Canada, and Carl Mendoza and Kevin Devito from the University of Alberta.
Over the years, Barbour and his research colleagues have introduced a number of engineering alumni to the oil sands industry. “When you talk about mine closure and research in the oil sands industry, you find the U of S has a very strong reputation,” he said. “People seem to love our graduates. I don’t know how many times I’ve had people from industry say to me, ‘we sure like the engineers you put out’. It’s primarily because we get great kids to start with, but the university also does well with building the relationship and turning out students who know how to behave as professionals.”
Barbour knows firsthand the difference U of S engineering alumni can make in the mine reclamation field. As the new research chair, he is anticipating that between six and eight graduate students, post docs and undergraduates will be joining his team of collaborators as part of a “Fellowship of the Ring” as they set out to explore the paths from Mordor to the Shire.
Bill’s Lake, a reclaimed wetland on a former Syncrude mine site, is named after the late Bill Stolte, a U of S hydrologist.