Point of View: Creating New Land

land reclamation environment oil sands

Neil Sandstrom has more than 20 years’ experience as an environmental engineer. He’s been involved in environmental planning and closure of more mines than he can remember in Canada. COSIA asked Sandstrom what he’s learned over the years.
 
Q: What does an environment manager do?
I’m responsible for all environmental aspects of Teck’s energy assets from project approvals to reclamation certification. Reclamation is a science that pulls from a wide range of professionals and experts and, increasingly, traditional knowledge.
 
My specialty is soil and groundwater, so my role is to understand the conditions of a disturbed site and how best to restore the landscape when the mine comes to the end of its life. That includes working with a multidisciplinary team to decide what landforms we need to create, what soil covers should go on top, and what types of vegetation we should plant so that the land is safe for future traditional and commercial use.
 
Q: What makes you passionate about your job?
Like all practitioners who get involved in environmental work, I want to make a positive change. That’s why people who work in this field get into it in the first place. We have a passion for what we’re doing, and we take a tremendous amount of pride in the success of our work. 
 
Q: Where do Canada’s oil sands sit on the spectrum of best practice in land reclamation?
In my view, the oil sands are on the cutting edge of reclamation science and COSIA has helped position us there. I base this opinion on my experience in other jurisdictions and learnings from the international science community. The high-level issues around reclamation are the same across the globe and often center on water – either to little or too much. 
 
Wetlands, for example, face a lot of pressure globally from expanding human populations. In the oil sands region, there are abundant wetland areas to be reclaimed and we have now advanced science to the point where reclamation can include wetlands that accumulate peat and carbon.
 
As Canadians, we have a lot of reclamation knowledge and expertise to offer, but we can always learn from other innovative approaches. We’re all in this together and need to solve our common issues together.

Q: What would you like people to know about mining?
That we design for mine closure right from the start! Before work even begins, we conduct a stringent environmental assessment to determine the impact the mine will have on the area and how we can best restore mined areas back to a state where they can support a range of post-mining land uses. In that plan, which incorporates input from traditional land users and has to be approved by regulators, we design for the end of operations, which could be up to 50 years away. 
 
We constantly assess our environmental performance during operations and adapt our reclamation and closure plans to ensure that effects are the same or less than predicted at the start. As a company that’s been around for more than 100 years, Teck has a lot of experience in this regard and we are bringing that experience to the oil sands.
 
Q: Why are communities important partners in this process?
It doesn’t matter what part of the world you are operating in, it’s important to involve communities in reclamation and closure planning because they remain after mining is complete. Often local communities want and need the land to support traditional use again, so they are personally vested in helping to achieve positive outcomes. That’s why in the oil sands, we all work with indigenous communities on reclamation plans. It’s a win-win outcome.
 
Teck is a diversified Canadian based resource company committed to responsible mining and mineral development with business units focused on copper, zinc, steelmaking coal and energy. Their energy business unit includes a 21.3% interest in the Fort Hills oil sands mining and processing operation, which achieved first oil in January 2018. Additionally, they hold a 100% interest in the Frontier oil sands project, as well as other interests in oil sands leases in the Athabasca region of northeastern Alberta.

Interesting in finding out more about land reclamation? Check out our other land projects

And related blogs…
•    Compensation lakes give fish a new home 
•    The Oil Sand Vegetation Cooperative, a living example of successful collaboration 
•    Special recipe creates topsoil in just five years 
•    First four years of a young boreal forest 

If you’re working in forest restoration, explore our virtual tours and silvicultural toolkit.  

If you are an innovator or entrepreneur, see our land challenges and innovation opportunity: Seeing the forest through the trees: Help reduce oil sands exploration footprints

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