Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Alberta Oilsands: Researchers Doubt Damaged Land Can Be Restored To What It Was

In this file picture taken on October 23, 2009 An aerial view of an oil sands mine near the town of Fort McMurray in Alberta. AFP PHOTO/Mark RALSTON

"It makes us angry because they will put some kind of plants back on the landscape, but it will not look the way it was and it will not have the same type of functions," said Suzanne Bayley, a University of Alberta biologist who has been studying the region for nearly two decades.

"Thinking that wetlands, or in (the oilsands) case, those peatlands are going to go back to natural states, it's basically unlikely," said David Moreno-Mateos, a biologist at the University of California Berkeley who recently published an analysis of 621 restored wetlands around the world.

"We don't know the right way to bring them back."
EDMONTON - In a small corner of the vast scrape the oilsands have left on northern Alberta, a small sampling of seeds is gradually warming up in the slow boreal spring.

Painstakingly hand-gathered last fall from sedges, grasses and shrubs at undisturbed marshes and bogs, the seeds were carefully strewn atop a former Syncrude tailings pond, now a crucial pilot project in wetland reclamation. If they sprout, much will rest on those slender shoots of water sedge, slough grass, marsh cinquefoil and bog birch.

There's the fate of a huge ecosytem being disrupted at an increasing pace. There're the millions of dollars companies have spent studying how to rebuild wetlands destroyed by oilsands mining. And there's the social licence of an industry that promises to restore land — in the words of one ad — to "where you'd never know there'd been a mine in the first place."

"The probability of success is extremely high," said Warren Zubot, a Syncrude senior engineer who's working on the Sandhills project, the rebuilt fen that is home to those scattered seeds.

"I'm very confident that we have the ability to create reclaimed wetlands," said Christine Daly, wetland reclamation director for Suncor, which has restored a marsh and is working on a fen project of its own.

But academic reseachers point out at least half the region's wetlands will be permanently lost. They say millions of tonnes of carbon will be released.

Stable ecosystems may take generations to develop and their final state is unpredictable, while hundreds of square kilometres of pristine bogs, marshes and fens are slated to be torn up at a pace that far outstrips reclamation...

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