Suncor trumpets tailings pond reclamation

Petroleum producer Suncor is celebrating its transformation of an Alberta oilsands pond into 220 hectares of earth and trees.

Former native chief and wetlands ecologist warns project is only a small step

The site of this former Suncor tailings pond is gradually turning into a wetlands area. ((CBC))
The first oilsands company to operate in Alberta is celebrating its transformation of a tailings pond into 220 hectares of earth and trees.

Suncor Energy held a ceremony near Fort McMurray on Thursday at the site of the first oilsands tailings pond, created in 1967. The company said in a news release that it is the first to complete such a project and called it "an industry milestone."

"It's a big historic event for the whole history of this industry and the history of Suncor," Suncor CEO Rick George said at the ceremony.

The ponds, actually the size of lakes, collect the toxic waste left over after bitumen is extracted from the oilsands. Scientists and environmentalists say the noxious water can leach into the ground.

The Suncor site is now green land with streams running through it, but there is not much wildlife and full reclamation is a long way off.

Six hundred thousand shrubs and trees will be planted in total, and company officials say they need to monitor the land over the next 10 years. 

Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach praised Suncor during his remarks at the ceremony.

"I just gotta tell you, it's not only being able to offer congratulations to Suncor, but I can tell you, I am damn proud to be an Albertan," Stelmach said.

Suncor Energy calls its reclamation of a 43-year-old tailings pond 'an industry milestone.' ((CBC))
Lee Foote, a wetlands ecologist at the University of Alberta and an expert in land reclamation, warned that work must be done to ensure that the Suncor site becomes a fully functioning part of the ecosystem.

"These kind of things have to be challenged and followed out further to make sure that you have ecosystem integrity," he said. "It's not just optics and appearances." 

The announcement is mostly symbolic, Foote said.

"They're very hungry for a success story, and so this is one," he said. "In difficult times, you try to make something of whatever you have achieved, instead of focusing on your failures." 

Oilsands companies will probably make similar reclamation announcements in the future as they try to improve their image, Foote said.

First Nation, Greenpeace unimpressed

George Poitras, the former chief of the Mikisew Cree First Nation, who live downstream from the oilsands, noted that the reclamation is a tiny percentage of the total land used by the petroleum projects.

He said it was a "sad commentary" after 40 years. "But any progress is hopefully a sign of better ways of managing the industry."

Greenpeace Canada was similarly unimpressed.

Environmental activist Mike Hudema said in a news release that there are more tailings in Alberta than there were last year and that it's too early to call the site reclaimed.

"We don't know if it will support life or what chemicals are still soaked into the soil, and at the end of the day this land will be a fundamentally different landscape than the diverse ecosystem that was here before Suncor began its destructive operations," he said in a statement.

Marlo Raynolds, executive director of the environmental group the Pembina Institute, said Suncor is leading the way in reclamation, but that other companies are lagging behind.

Alberta Environment charged Suncor Energy earlier this month with violating stormwater management regulations in the Athabasca River; in April 2009, Suncor was fined a combined $850,000 in two separate environmental cases.