By Jack Caldwell

For years we have watched as the bulldozers and backhoes laboured to fill in and shape the topography. Today they are done and the landscape is rolling and green, with small creeks meandering amongst boulder clusters and bird-nesting sites. Pond 1 at the Suncor oil sands mine is officially reclaimed and the Alberta Premier today attended the official opening ceremony. He said it makes him proud to be an Albertan to see what has been achieved.

Brave the security desk, get a sticker that signifies you are approved to enter the site and drive up the road from the entrance and you are greeted on the left by a vast lake, a tailings pond awaiting reclamation, and on the right by a green landscape that is a reclaimed tailings impoundment. If you are even luckier, drive past the pond and to the east bank to gaze back on the long-vegetated slopes of the perimeter dikes of the impoundment. They are beautiful as they rise from the river flowing broad and slow to the north.

I bought four baseball caps sporting the green and logo of the newly named site, Wapisiw Lookout, a Cree word meaning swan. While I had nothing to do with the closure of this pond, I celebrate with those and the whole oil sands mining industry in this achievement. The people I know who have long worked to bring this closure to completion, are hard-working, dedicated, honest folk who have been brave, courageous in their foresight, and have persevered while journalists have carped and criticized.

There has been much written and said and many false claims made that they could never reclaim or close an oil sands tailings pond. Today the contrary is proven the correct assessment. This is a milestone in the history of the oil sands and an achievement that demonstrates the reality that we can mine, dispose of tailings, and restore the landscape. This is not arboreal forest, but it is a rolling landscape of its own beauty. I have seen the fox and I have seen the bear. I went outside to view the fox more closely. I stayed in the car with the doors locked when the small bear appeared. I have seen the deer that habit the area. Nature can return and flourish in this new environment.

The work has been costly and closing future tailings ponds will continue to be costly. But these costs are justified. At least in my opinion looking at Pond 1 yesterday, I believe this.

Here is a quote from the Suncor News that I picked up in the security center.

“Since the late 1960s, researchers from all over the world have been working to figure out why this stuff is different and how to deal with it. The fact that Pond 1 is the first pond reclaimed in the Alberta oil sands indicates that it took a lot of work and time to find the answers.” This is a statement by Sean Wells, Manager Research Engineering.

He and the others who work with him deserve the highest accolades for their efforts and now this success. We look to the technical papers that will now follow to detail the insight and the engineering that has made this the first closed oil sands tailings pond.

We hope only that now the critics will spend a bit more time seeking out facts, rather than indulging in polemics unfounded on hard work and commitment. To their credit, The Pembina Institute is mildly upbeat:

“While today’s announcement is a welcome milestone, the problem posed by toxic tailings waste continues to grow for the industry as a whole,” Marlo Raynolds, executive director, said in a news release. “We are disappointed that in comparison to two Suncor operations, other companies have failed to submit plans that meet rules set out by the regulator to deal with future tailings.”

There have been less complimentary carpings. But these literary critics are blithely uninformed of progress on Pond 5 reclamation and the realities of the Tailings Reduction Operation (TRO) which I can attest is successfully turning MFT into MFS; that is turning mature fine tailings into mature fine soils, and I use the term soil in the fine old sense that reflects the fact that I learnt geotechnical engineering when it was still called Soil Mechanics and Foundation Engineering and soil had not become a word for purists who claim it must be able to support vegetation without human intervention. In those golden days, soil was able to support buildings and could be used as a construction material. I still subscribe to the use of the term soil to mean clay, silt, sand, gravel, boulders, or a mix ofone or more of thesesolid materialand which can be used for the benefit of mankind and theprotection of the environment.

The final words belong to Suncor:

“We said we would be first to complete surface reclamation of a tailings pond and we have delivered on this important commitment,” said Rick George, president and chief executive officer. “We know we still have a lot of work to do, but today’s achievement is a significant step towards reducing our environmental footprint related to our operations – something we can all be extremely proud of”.

Suncor has renamed the area Wapisiw Lookout to pay tribute to the history of the region, and to honour its Aboriginal peoples.

“We invested a great deal of time and resources to complete the surface reclamation of Wapisiw Lookout and we’ve also learned a great deal,” George added. “We’ll use this knowledge along with new and developing innovations to manage our tailings and speed up the reclamation of other existing tailings ponds. It’s an ongoing journey, but this is an important step and we’re well on our way”.

PS. Lest I be accused of prejudice, I note that I am engaged as a consultant by Suncor on various tailings projects. Suncor, however, has not approved this posting, and probably are not even aware of it. I claim only, as I have proven through three years and over one thousand postings on this blog,that I am a bloody-minded, crass, old curmudgeon who writes what he thinks without regard for affiliation, affection, or the attitude of others.