Returning former mines and tailings areas to landscapes such as forests is part of Syncrude's ongoing commitment to responsible oil sands development.
Trees see the light at South Bison Hills reclamation area
Despite how it may look from the highway, Syncrude isn’t switching from producing oil to growing vegetables. Since the summer, rows of black plastic mulch have been visible on the east and north-facing slopes of South Bison Hills, just south of Base Mine Lake.
The product is used widely in farming and landscaping, and is one of the methods Syncrude is testing in an attempt to transform grassy areas into reclaimed boreal forests. The grass was seeded in 1995 as a way to prevent soil erosion, after mining ended in the West Mine.
“Over time, the grass became almost impossible to dislodge, leaving no room for trees to grow,” says Syncrude vegetation specialist Eric Girard.
Returning former mines and tailings ponds to landscapes such as forests is part of Syncrude’s ongoing commitment to responsible oil sands development. Small-scale attempts to convert grassy slopes into dense forests will help inform Syncrude specialists on best practices in anticipation of applying the methods across larger areas, such as tailings dykes, as they become available.
“We want to determine which approach works best in terms of providing the young trees the light, water and nutrients they need to grow,” explains Eric. “Right now there’s too much competition with the grass.”
The plastic mulch provides a barrier between the trees, which are poked through the plastic and grass. More than 3,000 trees and shrubs, including balsam poplar, aspen, jack pine and birch were planted over the summer. Spruce, a shade-tolerant tree, will be planted later, alongside willow, green alder, Saskatoon berry, buffaloberry and pin cherry.
Eric noted that while the rows may look artificial now, the balsam poplar will spread roots at a rate of about one metre per year, meaning that after a decade, a 10-metre radius around the ‘mother tree’ will be filled with smaller trees. The plastic mulch will also be removed in three to four years.
“Eventually, those rows will disappear and a full cover of trees will emerge,” he adds.
While thousands of trees and shrubs have already taken root, reclamation work will continue next spring, including the planting of roughly 6,000 seedlings. Eric says that with no grass to compete with, the trees have a chance to ‘see the light’ and keep growing.
This trial taking place on the slopes of the South Bison Hills will assist in planning much larger attempts to transform grass into boreal forests.
We will ensure the land disturbed by our operation is returned to a stable, safe condition that is capable of supporting biologically self-sustaining communities of plants and animals.
Our long-term vision is to create a landscape that sustains an integrated mosaic of land uses that meet regulator and stakeholder expectations. Our policy adheres to the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act which requires Syncrude to return the land we use to a productive capability equivalent to that of the pre-disturbance landscape.
We are required by Alberta legislation to submit a reclamation and closure plan every 10 years, with a mid-term update provided five years after the submission. We provided our update to regulators in 2011. This plan is separate from, but consistent with, our ERCB Directive 074 submission which outlines our tailings management plan.
In 2011, the Alberta government introduced a new Mine Financial Security Program for oil sands and coal mines. It requires ongoing reclamation as soon as practical and ensures adequate security in the rare event of premature mine closure or abandonment.