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Prof. unearths key to reclaiming Alberta’s oil sands

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A University of Saskatchewan professor is researching a process which could change the way strip mining sites in Alberta’s oil sands are reclaimed.

Susan Kaminskyj, a professor in the Department of Biology, has found a fungus that allows plants to grow in the toxic soil petroleum strip mining leaves behind.

Most bitumen — a semi-solid form of petroleum found in Alberta’s oil sands — is accessible only through strip mining. Once all the bitumen is extracted from a site, the mines are filled and oil sands companies haul in new soil and new plant life to reclaim the site.

However, a small amount of toxic bitumen remains in the soil, poisoning the area and preventing the return of native plant life for years. The remaining sites are referred to as tailings sands.

“The processes the oil sands companies go through are complicated, they take a lot of time, they’re very expensive and they sometimes have to be done multiple times before everything takes,” Kaminskyj said. “Our technology allows us to plant directly on the tailing sands and hopefully allow us to do everything in one pass.”

The particular isolate of the fungus Kaminskyj is testing, trichoderma harzianum, seems to be able to metabolize the toxic hydrocarbons found in tailings sands. By neutralizing the toxic elements of the soil, the fungus allows healthy plants to grow without fertilizer and return the area to its natural state.

The fungus can be applied to a wide range of plants. T. harzianum is an endophytic fungus, meaning it is grown within plants and has no detrimental effects.

In lab trials, Kaminskyj and her team dipped tailings sands plants in bleach to sterilize them and then grew t. harzianum on the plants. The fungus was successful in allowing tomatoes, wheat and a variety of grasses to grow in bitumen contaminated soil.

Kaminskyj started researching the fungus when she examined the “pioneer plants” that were found growing on tailings sands before anything else. She consistently found t. harzianum in the plants and began to search for a connection.

“These [plants] aren’t well looked on because they’re just weeds, but weeds are important because they’re pioneers and they’ve figured out how to grow on stressful sites,” Kaminskyj said.

The use of t. harzianum is not a complete land reclamation system in itself, but Kaminskyj said it could be used to improve existing methods.

“We don’t want to take over reclamation, we just want to improve it,” she said.

Kaminskyj has approached several oil field companies, including Suncor, Syncrude and Albian Sands with the technology, but none have shown interest.

Tailings sands north of Fort McMurray, Alta. required 65,000 truckloads of dirt to be covered.
Tailings sands north of Fort McMurray, Alta. required 65,000 truckloads of dirt to be covered.

“They say their engineering solutions work perfectly well. They say, ‘Why would we trust your science when our engineering works?’” Kaminskyj said.

To prove the viability of her idea, Kaminskyj is working on finding sites for field testing. Though t. harzianum has been successful in lab tests, Kaminskyj and her team have not been able to do any field testing because no oil sands companies have granted them access to their tailings sands sites.

Kaminskyj said she is currently working with an American company to test the process on areas contaminated by previous industrial use.

One of the biggest problems with existing tailings sands reclamation methods is that they take a long time. Furthermore, they sometimes need to be worked on multiple times before plant life begins to grow.

Because of the slow pace of land reclamation, tailings sands are being created faster than they are being reclaimed. There are currently 715 square kilometres of tailings sands. Only 1.04 square kilometres have been certified as reclaimed.

“Part of the problem is that our species is very energy hungry and needs to become more modern,” Kaminskyj said.

Kaminskyj acknowledged that the oil sands are an important resource for both Canada and the world, but efforts to counter their detrimental effects need to be increased.

“I think that we should focus our efforts more on conservation and conserve our resources for a future date,” she said.

A colleague who was researching biology in stressful environments spurred Kaminskyj’s interest in oil sands reclamation. She said she originally wanted to work in the high arctic, but was directed to northern Alberta’s oil sands as a more accessible stressful environment that has greater relevance to the U of S community.

Kaminskyj has been researching tailings sands reclamation since 2006. She hopes to have several academic papers, mostly written by her students, published in 2014.

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