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    Suncor opens Fen
  • 27Aug

    Suncor opens Fen

    Mark Little, Suncor’s vice president of oilsands and in situ operations, kneels down as he plants a sedge plant into the ground.

    Behind him, as well as Wood Buffalo mayor Melissa Blake and Fort McMurray Metis president Richard Dragon, the land is dotted with greenery: blueberry and cranberry bushes, jackpine, willows, and dozens of other plants typically found in wetlands.

    Less than 500 metres away, truck engines roar and smokestacks billow as Canada’s largest oil company continues to dig bitumen out of the ground.

    Twenty years ago, the 32 hectares of land Little visited on Monday was an open-pit mine. Someday, the company hopes the area will be a wetland, capable of supporting biodiversity.

    The planting of sedge plants represents the opening of Suncor’s Nikanotee (Cree for “future”) Fen, a natural peat-accumulating wetland. Suncor is one of the first mining companies in the world to attempt the creation of the sophisticated ecosystem.

    “This is our way of fulfilling our commitment to reclaiming land we use,” said Little. “We have to ask, ‘How do we put this back to its natural state?’ This is the future of this area. This is the future as it grows.”

    The project began approximately eight years ago, originally a collaboration with the University of Waterloo and the Cumulative Environmental Management Association. By the time Little planted a sedge into the ground, that partnership expanded.

    Teams from Wilfred Laurier university, the University of Calgary and Colorado State have also joined the monitoring process. Keyano College will be leading the amphibian monitoring of the fen. Monitoring will be funded by Suncor, Shell and Imperial Oil.

    “It’s a really good sign when we’re seeing reclamation here and the area becoming a lot more diverse,” said Christine Daly, Suncor’s wetlands reclamation director.

    Suncor also consulted ecologists, as well as local aboriginal and Metis communities, about appropriate plants for sustaining a fen. If the reclamation goes according to plan, natural wetlands and fens will form as they accumulate peat and water.

    To kickstart this process, Suncor moved peat to the area, built the watershed to keep the area wet and planted fen plants, which were originally grown in a greenhouse. The company has set milestones before the land can be certified as reclaimed by the province.

    In the meantime, the main challenge is to keep the area wet and ensure the fen plants are thriving.

    Since this is one of the first fen a mining company has tried to build, Little and Daly did not have a specific target for certification. However, Daly says she hopes the milestones will be met within five years.

    However, a 2012 paper from the University of Alberta argues with current scientific and technical knowledge, it can take decades - even centuries - for wetlands to form in reclaimed areas.

    “We’ve never tried planting a lot of these plants here before, but so far, they’re doing well,” she said.

    According to Alberta law, companies like Suncor are obliged to reclaim any area affected by mining activities.

    While the Nikanotee Fen sits on top of a former open-pit mine, the land itself was actually part of a river valley, not a fen. Daly says this makes no difference, as long as the ecosystems are restored.

    “I don’t think it has an adverse effect on the area, as long as you’re creating the same ecosystems that were here before,” she said. “If you have a forest to our left or a forest to our right, what matters is we’re creating healthy forests once again. We just have to be putting the same ecosystems back on the landscape. They don’t have to be in the exact same place.”

    To Greenpeace spokesperson Mike Hudema, this is the wrong approach to reclamation work.

    “It does matter because companies say they’re going to reclaim the land when they move in,” he said. “They can’t pick and choose what goes where, it has to go back to what it was before they got there.”


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