Bringing post-mined oil sands land back to nature.

Jonathan Price and three students, two male and one female, stand in a fen. One student is augering the peat.

Jonathan Price, left, with grad students Corey Wells (Waterloo; partially obscured), Tahni Phillips (Laurier), and Jon Goetz (Waterloo) hand-auger peat in Pauciflora Fen, a reference site in northern Alberta. Photo by post-doctoral fellow Roxane Andersen.

People talk about healing the world, but few do it in as literal a sense as Jonathan Price.

The geography and environmental management professor is doing what nobody has ever done before – turning the barren landscape left behind after oil sands mining back into the delicate, diverse peatland that once covered more than half of the Athabasca region of northern Alberta.

Price is leading a multi-university team that has recently received $6.7 million in funding. It’s one of the largest-ever grants from the Collaborative Research and Development program, which combines funding from industry and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).

The seeds of the project were planted in 2003, when Price was at a meeting in Fort McMurray, Alberta. There, an oil industry expert stated that while it may be possible to recreate marshes, “we won’t do peatlands because we can’t make a peatland. They take thousands of years to develop.”

Price challenged that. He had been involved in a prize-winning project to restore damaged peatlands. Reclaiming fen peatland that had been scraped away entirely would be harder but doable, he thought. It would also be important work.

Fens are the predominant type of peatland in northern Alberta. They have a high and stable water table, are rich in nutrients, and therefore support a diverse range of plants and animals. They’re also important for sequestering carbon. However, they are delicate because they require “enough water of sufficient quality” to flow onto it so that more organic material grows than can decompose, says Price. Getting that decent-quality water is a challenge in a landscape full of tailings ponds.

Price’s team used hydrogeological modelling to optimize the size, slope, layering, and sediment properties of the system. They combined the modelling with theory and intuition gained through previous practical experience and produced a blueprint for construction.

The team is now working on a pilot site on post-mined Suncor land. They’re re-contouring the landscape and bringing in donor peat and fen plants. Upland, they’re building an aquifer that provides water to the newly constructed fen. They’re using tailings materials to create the aquifer, but a liner will separate the old tailings dump from the fen. The water flowing from the created aquifer will still be high in sodium and naphthenic acid, a residual compound in the processed tailings sand, but Price and his colleagues believe they can make it work.

“I think in 10 years we’ll see an ecosystem that has many of the features of a fen peatland, though it will be a system that’s still evolving and changing as the solute redistributes and the plant layer develops,” said Price. “I feel optimistic.”

For more information, see the Pilot Fen Program.