Wild Tracks

On behalf of the world's wild species

Oilsands to Wetlands

The media loves to bash the environmental record of the Alberta oilsands. Devastating scenes of scraped earth, over 1600 migrating ducks killed in contaminated tailings ponds, etc consistently find their way into news reports around the world. And may I say, rightly so. These environmentally degrading activities should be brought to the attention of everyone who uses oil.

Um. Wait a minute. Isn’t that just about everyone? Has anyone decided to give up using oil because of the environmental mess in the oilsands? I wonder how many of the harsh critics of the oilsands have given up their cars?

But I digress.

From this...

From this...

Everyone knows that in the media, “if it bleeds it leads”, meaning bad news always get the front page. I’m sure the downside of oil produced from the Alberta oilsands will be on the front page of many newspapers for years to come. Unless of course, we all decide to stop using oil.

In our local paper today, on the sixth page of the fifth inside section, there was a small article about new reclaimed wetlands in the oilsands. Whoa! I live in the oilsands province and I didn’t know anything about this!

As far as I’m concerned, it is impossible to have too many wetlands. Particularly in the heart of the boreal forest, where perhaps millions of migratory birds nest and raise their young.

It seems companies in the oilsands are establishing productive wetlands, planting trees, grass and shrubs and restoring wildlife habitats. The tailings – a mixture of sand, clay and unrecovered bitumen – solidify over the years. Once they in effect become rock, reclamation can begin.

To this.

To this.

The East Mines tailings pit is probably the most widely viewed scene of destruction, as it is beside a major highway, and photos of this ugly blight on the landscape have gone around the world. This 2,718 acre (1,100 hectare) area is about to become wildlife habitat. Sand to a depth of 16 feet (5 meters) will be moved in this summer. In the fall, soil will be brought in and next spring, trees and bushes will be planted.

A herd of approximately 300 wood bison already lives on 1,730 acres (700 hectares) of previously reclaimed land.

The West Mine pit is being filled with hardened tailings, and capped with fresh water to form a lake.

The first oilsands tailing pond is to become a series of wetlands, beginning next year. A marsh of about 250 acres (100 hectares) is to be established at the south end of the former tailings pit,and planted with salt-resistant varieties of plants that will assist with the breakdown of toxic compounds. From there, the water will flow to another marsh, which will have a large layer of fresh water added. Tests have shown that fish, insects and plants can live in this environment. From there, the newly clean water will eventually flow back into the nearby river.

In conjunction with scientists from four universities, a wetland fen is also in the works. A fen is a large wetland fed by groundwater, not surface water as in marshes and bogs. Fens are found throughout the boreal forest, much to the delight of huge numbers of frogs. Large mats cut from fen peatlands currently being cleared for mining will be placed in the new fen areas. These peat mats will maintain their structure and water holding capacity, and provide a quick start for the new fens.

I am in no way condoning the environmental disaster that is the functioning oilsands. I hate it. Keep it on the front pages and newscasts the world over. The more bad press they get, the more they’ll work at reversing it. Which means more wetlands and more boreal forest habitat. There is no downside to that.

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