Sediments from peatlands are more nutrient-rich than those of reclaimed lands. Photo: Rebecca Rooney
Plans for the closure of several mines show that much of northern Alberta’s boreal wetlands will be converted to forest instead of being restored back to wetlands. This presents a number of problems. Having younger, drier trees in the area, for instance, exposes the region to the threat of forest fires.
Tamarack, black spruce, fens and bogs will be replaced with white spruce, jack pine and trembling aspen. Labrador tea and mosses will yield to blueberry, dogwood and low-bush cranberry, which sink less carbon into the soil.
It’s easy to point fingers at the industry, but they’re “doing the best they can” under the circumstances says Rooney. Companies like Syncrude Canada and Suncor Energy, which were among the operators who provided Rooney with data, are operating blindly in reclaiming peatlands. There is no legal obligation or even a set of guidelines for them to return wetlands to their natural state post-production.
“The government hasn’t provided [companies] with biological targets they need to reach or any standardized way of how the job should be done,” says Rooney.
Through the study, Rooney found that the way mines report to the government is highly inconsistent.
“One company might produce a map; another might produce a table,” says Rooney. “One company might be referring to the development area—that is, exactly the footprint of where they’re going to put the mine and not counting anything around or between. Others might report on the local study area, which includes their footprint plus the buffer area around it. It’s like [comparing] apples and oranges.”
This study could point the way forward to new standards for how mines should reclaim wetlands. For Rooney, it’s a way to inform citizens of one of the costs of oil sands activity.
“There’s a substantial campaign on the part of CAPP (the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers) putting out videos and in essence trying to say they’re putting [the land] back to the way it was,” says Rooney. “But they’re not going to restore it.”
She hopes her study will contribute to a larger discussion of whether the economic benefits derived from the oil sands outweigh the social and environmental costs.