Fens are an important part of many ecosystems, especially in the boreal region where they are the most common type of wetland. More commonly known as muskeg or peat land, fens are a type of wetland where the decaying vegetation accumulates as peat. Before it was developed, half of the land in the Wood Buffalo area was fen wetland.
Fens store and release water and keep streams and rivers clean by filtering out naturally occurring pollutants such as organic detritus and minerals. They store greenhouse gases in their peat reservoirs and help reduce risk of floods. They’re also home to a diverse range of animals, insects, amphibians and aquatic plants.
Reclamation in the oil sands
Reconstructing wetlands disturbed by oil sands development is a high priority for our industry as further development will disturb more land. Our fellow operator Syncrude has had success with wetland reclamation. Suncor has had some success too: the Nikanotee Fen.
The Nikanotee (pronounced Nee-ga-no-tee; Cree word for “future”) Fen began as Suncor’s pilot fen research area. Now, it’s a three-hectare fen fed by a man-made 32-hectare watershed, and one of the first reclaimed fen watersheds in the world. Traditionally fen or bog peat lands have been restored by fixing water flows disturbed by ditching or roads, but the Nikanotee Fen ecosystem was reconstructed entirely from the ground up – literally. We constructed the watershed using materials from the mine site to meet the groundwater system requirements (at or just before the surface.)In 2011, Shell Canada and Imperial joined the project during the fen’s construction.
Getting it right took a decade of university-led research and design. To date, monitoring indicates the fen is performing as designed, and already several typical fen plants such as moss, sedges and birch have successfully established themselves on the site.
Broad and extensive collaboration was the key. This legacy Canadian Oil Sands Network for Research and Development project saw experts in peat land science, geotechnical engineering and reclamation on campuses working with experts in mining, construction, reclamation and safety. Dozens of organizations were also engaged, from the multi-stakeholder group Cumulative Environmental Management Association, to universities, contractors, regulators, Aboriginal communities, reclamation operators, reclamation and closure planners and international peer reviewers during all phases of the project.
Construction was completed in 2013 and on-going monitoring continues. Towards the end of the same year, Suncor contributed fen development technology to other members of Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance, which has a land environmental priority area.
The type of wetland reconstruction is a point of pride for those involved and continues to receive recognition. In 2013 the project won the environment and sustainability award in Suncor’s 2013 President’s Operational Excellence Awards. This year, the project was named as an Emerald Awards finalist in the Large Business category (with winners to be announced June 4, 2015.)
When the project began several years ago, the goal was to move the needle on wetland reclamation. Now, the Nikanotee Fen is just one example of how companies are working to improve environmental performance, raise industry standards and meet stakeholder expectations.
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