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Environment File

Scientist seeks oilsands trees Trees could once again grow from old coal and gravel mines near St. Albert if an Edmonton scientist’s research takes root.

Scientist seeks oilsands trees

Trees could once again grow from old coal and gravel mines near St. Albert if an Edmonton scientist’s research takes root.

Simon Landhausser, a professor of forest ecology at the University of Alberta, was named as the National Sciences and Energy Research Council of Canada’s chair of forestland reclamation on June 4. He now has five years and $2 million in government and industry cash to find out how to restore trees to old open pit mines.

“The challenge is to recreate forests,” Landhausser says in an interview. Forests are complex ecosystems, with bugs, leaf litter and fungi recycling nutrients and enriching the soil. Foresters keep this system intact when they harvest and replant trees, but strip mines, such as the oilsands, bulldoze it entirely. “You’re starting from scratch.” That’s why many former mine sites end up overgrown with weeds.

Oilsands surface mining has disturbed large areas of the boreal forest, he notes — about 529 square kilometres worth, or 15 St. Alberts, according to the Pembina Institute — just 0.2 per cent of which has been certified as reclaimed. Industry is looking for ways to speed up reclamation.

“If we let nature go its course, probably in a thousand years there will be trees back on the site,” he continues. “Nobody has a thousand years.”

Landhausser is working on fast-growing aspen and pine seedlings that he thinks could kick-start this process. His research will look for the soils and seedlings that will grow best in Alberta’s north.

It’ll be at least five years before we know if the trees will work on the oilsands, Landhausser says, since the trees grow so slowly. If they do, they could also be used to restore trees to gravel and coal mines in the Edmonton area. Initial results could be applied to tree farms growing wood for carbon sequestration, he adds.

Students across the province broke out their pH meters Friday to test lakes and rivers as part of Water Quality Awareness Day.

The annual event, administered by the Alberta Lake Management Society, has people take free water testing kits to local water bodies to collect basic information about them, says city environmental manager Leah Jackson. That information is then compiled in a central database to track water quality over time.

Members of the Big Lake Environment Support Society, or BLESS, are regular participants, says member Dave Burkhart. “The government has been fairly lax in doing these kinds of tests,” he says, so it’s up to volunteers to track the state of many.

A comprehensive water quality study of Big Lake and its tributaries in 2006 by BLESS found that the lake had appropriate levels of dissolved oxygen — a sign that it could support life — but excess levels of phosphorous — a sign that it could be at risk of excess plant and algae growth.

City environmental manager Leah Jackson says she also went out water testing this week on the Sturgeon. The city has monitored water quality at four sites and eight outfalls along the Sturgeon since 2006, and recently started tracking four sites along Carrot Creek.

Her research suggests that Carrot Creek is not particularly healthy compared to the Sturgeon. “It’s got higher levels of sediment in it than any other location we have,” she says, as well as high levels of pesticides and fertilizer — no surprise, she says, given the farms that surround it.

As for the Sturgeon, it still manages to support fish and other invertebrates despite how it looks. “It’s always healthier than I ever expect,” she says.

Results from this year’s water quality day will be posted at