The energy industry touts its ability to reclaim lands as a selling point in the PR battle over strip mining in the oilsands, but ecologist Kevin Timoney argues the wetlands companies leave behind are defective and destructive.
Timoney looked at an area approximately 100 kilometres long and 50 kilometres wide in northeast Alberta near Fort McMurray and discovered significant issues with reclaimed land.
Reclamation is required by law in Alberta for mining operations.
His primary concerns for these sites are the reduced numbers of native plants and the increased levels of non-native weeds when compared to natural wetlands; the reduced biomass when compared to natural wetlands; the homogeneity of the reclaimed wetlands spread over the landscape; and the elevated concentrations of contaminants and salts in the soil.
"They're starting with essentially contaminated materials which might be completely devoid of organic matter," said Timoney while talking about his book Impaired Wetlands in a Damaged Landscape.
"So it is probably unrealistic to expect that a healthy wetland could be created from essentially contaminated material surrounded by, say open pit mines and tailings ponds and waste water ponds and things like that."
Threats to animals
According to Timoney, the man-made wetlands show no signs of becoming more healthy as they mature.
"One of the problems is the wetlands look totally suitable to migratory birds and mammals and insect and other invertebrates," he said.
"So they do contain some populations of animals, but these animals are then subjected to contaminants in the wetlands and they're also subjected to contaminants if they leave the wetlands and go visit a nearby tailings pond or some other industrial site."
Timoney has two suggestions for how to fix the situation.
The first is for companies to stop strip mining for bitumen. Oilsands mining operations might be more open to his other suggestion.
"A second thing that we can do with the existing wetlands, and this suggestion came to me after a lot of thinking, is to realize that they cannot be restored to a safe condition and that they should be converted, as far as possible, to uplands."
The water that would run off these fabricated uplands could be used by industry, according to Timoney.
"So it would not only basically cover these areas with clean surface material, so that the contaminants would be hidden below, but it would also reduce the amount of water that would have to be extracted from the Athabasca."
CBC reached out to several industry groups and companies. Those who responded were not familiar with the research and couldn't comment.
Laura Tupper, a spokesperson for Alberta Environment, emailed the following statement:
"We recognize wetlands play a vital role in protecting the environment and providing a sound habitat for supporting plant and animal biodiversity. Wetlands are also vital for flood mitigation by storing water on the landscape. Moving forward we will look closely at the current wetlands policy to ensure it is achieving its objectives.
"The Alberta Energy Regulator requires companies operating in the oilsands to present a Conservation Reclamation Plan. That plan must be kept current with technological advances and reclamation outcomes for the oilsands."