By Brian Cross
Not long ago northeastern Alberta resembled most
other Canadian boreal forests, with abundant trees,
rolling uplands, swampy bogs and the mosquitoes that
inevitably accompany them.
The mosquito population hasn’t changed much, but the landscape has.
To extract one of the region’s natural treasures—oilrich sands that lie beneath the surface—the landscape has been carved away by oilsands mining, sometimes to a depth of 100 metres.
Large tracts of land once filled with trees, wetlands and wildlife are now covered with sophisticated machinery designed to manage massive quantities of sulphur, hydrocarbons, contaminated wastewater, and piles of oilsands tailings.
Recognizing the importance of restoring the northern environment, Canada’s oilsands industry has committed itself to returning the land to the conditions that existed before mining began. To do so, oilsands companies have called on worldleading researchers at the University of Saskatchewan to help convert millions of tonnes of sand, clay, shale and waste material back into natural forests and wetlands.
For civil engineer Lee Barbour, understanding the environmental impact of oilsands activity began back in the late 1990s. He was studying migration of naturally occurring salts around prairie sloughs when he got a call from Clara Qualizza, a scientist with Syncrude Canada who was responsible for overseeing reclamation of huge stockpiles of salt-rich shales.
What began as a small Syncrude research grant has since been parlayed into two large federal Natural Science and Engineering Council of Canada (NSERC) grants involving several U of S researchers and dozens of graduate students.
That collaboration has established the U of S as a critical hub of oilsands reclamation expertise involving engineers, hydrologists, geochemists, hydrogeologists, geographers, toxicologists and soil scientists.
Fungus may have
potential to turn oil
sands into forest
It’s a massive task to restore plants and trees on thousands of hectares of land disturbed by the oilsands mining industry. But University of Saskatchewan biology researcher Susan Kaminskyj isn’t looking for a massive solution.
Instead, she’s looking at a tiny fungus that’s almost invisible to the naked eye.
The biologist began focusing on the fungus when colleagues conducting research at the Athabasca oilsands in northeastern Alberta provided her with a few pioneer plants, including dandelions and sow thistles, which were taking root in oilsands tailings.
Tailing sands, a byproduct of the oilsands refining process, resemble ordinary beach sand, but they also contain oily residues that make the sand unable to absorb water and highly inhospitable to plants.
“I’ve always been interested in extreme environments and wanted to find out why these plants were able to grow in this environment,” Kaminskyj said.
When Xiaohui Bao, a graduate student working with Kaminskyj, began looking at the plants, she isolated a tiny fungus species growing inside them.
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