New U of S research chair to help reclaim oil sands land

University of Saskatchewan geoscientist Lee Barbour has been awarded a $2.6-million industrial research chair backed by the federal Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and Syncrude to provide critical insights into the performance of reclaimed mining areas.

“Partnerships such as this allow U of S research to have a significant impact in our signature areas of research relating to challenges in energy, mineral resources, environment, and water security,” said Karen Chad, U of S vice-president research. “Congratulations to Dr. Barbour on this achievement, and our thanks to Syncrude and NSERC for making it possible.”

Syncrude will provide half the funding for Barbour’s Chair in Hydrogeological Characterization of Oil Sands Mine Closure Landforms, investing more than $1.3-million over the five-year research project, with another $1.3-million provided by NSERC. In addition, Syncrude and the university will contribute more than $1 million through in-kind support.

“Syncrude’s commitment to responsible development includes continuous improvement in our environmental performance,” said Syncrude president and CEO Scott Sullivan. “This research will be a vital part of the information we need to reclaim landscapes that support a variety of healthy ecosystems.”

“Research is vitally important to an economically and socially sustainable oil sands industry. Successful reclamation of the land used for mining is a big part of that,” said NSERC President Suzanne Fortier.

Dr. Barbour’s research will allow companies to accurately predict the behaviour of contaminants in groundwater and landforms, and adopt effective ways of limiting their environmental footprint.

Suzanne Fortier

Barbour’s team will work with Syncrude’s environmental scientists, building on a successful and productive collaboration established over the past decade. The company will also provide on-site logistical support, as well as instrumentation, drilling, sample collection, transportation and data gathering.

“We will determine the magnitude, rate, pathway, and chemistry of groundwater in the reclaimed oil sands mine landforms,” explains Barbour. “Our goal is to provide the information needed by oil sands developers like Syncrude so they can create new landscapes that are sustainable and support natural processes.”

Barbour, a civil engineer with more than 30 years of research and industrial experience in geo-environmental engineering, has led multidisciplinary research into the performance of reclamation soil covers at oil sands mine sites for the past 12 years. Barbour’s chair will provide training opportunities for two postdoctoral fellows, two PhD candidates, six masters students, two undergraduate students, and two research staff.

The research field site will be located on two watersheds that are part of Syncrude’s 3,400 hectares of permanently reclaimed land at Syncrude’s Mildred Lake facility, 35 kilometres north of Fort McMurray.

The project will also extend research into two new areas that are being reclaimed, including Syncrude’s 50-hectare watershed. This area features a 17-hectare fen pilot project, the oil sands industry’s first attempt at creating a wetland from the ground up, on land formerly mined and now in the process of being reclaimed.

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