A wheat field stands on land once occupied by an open pit coal mine.
By Alberta standards, there is nothing particularly unique about this patch of prairie 80 kilometres west of Edmonton; there is a farm shed, some aspen and poplar trees, cattle graze on the prairie, and in the summer the wheat heads out as it should. The fact that it appears ordinary is exactly what makes the 600 hectares, once an open pit coal mine, remarkable.
This past February, the Alberta Chamber of Resources (ACR) presented EPCOR Utilities and Sherritt International with the Major Reclamation Award, recognizing them for their innovation, patience and diligence in restoring an area that was once a part of the Genesee Coal Mine.
ACR represents 187 members across Alberta’s resource industry, including mining, the oil and gas sector and forestry. The award was presented to the two organizations by the ACR at its annual banquet in Edmonton, but it was Alberta Environment officials who determined who should be honoured.
ACR’s executive director, Brad Anderson, explained that with the ministry’s participation, this award represents more than just the industry congratulating itself. “If someone does something good, Alberta Environment doesn’t have avenues to pat people on the back — they can’t — but we can use them to be good judges so that we can pat ACR members on the back.”
Dan Kuchmak, senior mine engineering technologist at Sherritt Coal, has worked at the mine since 1995. He stood before over 600 of his peers to collect the award, and savoured the moment that was a generation in the making. The feeling, he said, “was immense gratitude for being recognized province-wide, especially to be amongst the movers and shakers of the industry. More so, getting the message out that good work — very good work — is being done within this location.”
The Genesee mine opened in 1988. The total area of the mine permit covers 6,734 hectares. Currently, 1,577 hectares are being actively mined. The earliest stage of the reclamation process began in the early 1990s. After the coal was extracted from the land, earthmovers levelled and contoured the area. Subsoil preserved from the initial mining process was dumped over the spoil, then decompacted and picked of stones. Topsoil was then added to the prepared subsoil. With the topsoil in place, the reclamation efforts encouraged the re-establishment of agriculture and pasture.
The stewards of the Genesee mine did not stop there. They had greater ambitions for the reclaimed area. “One of the things we were challenged with was ‘okay, you can make farmland, but what are you doing about wetlands and what are you doing about reforestation,’” said George Greenhough, land manager for EPCOR’s Genesee Generating Station, the coal-fuel power plant adjacent the mine.
The proximity of the mine site to Edmonton allows faculty and students from the University of Alberta to do field work at the reclaimed site. Oil sands companies are helping to support the research of various treatments of aspen seed stock. Another research project involves locating and developing viable wetland areas. The structure and foundation of a utility shed are monitored to learn how well the reclaimed land can support construction.
In January, EPCOR and Sherritt began an experiment with live root transplantation. Mining trucks transferred the top layer of soil — rich with seeds, roots and other organic material — from a recently deforested area that will soon be mined to eight hectares of the reclaimed site. “In the spring, we anticipate that we’ll have aspen [root shoots] and rose bushes and wildflowers typical of a boreal forest,” said Greenhough.
Mike Peck, general manager at Sherritt Coal, explained that the operation, so close to the people it serves in the nearby city, has a broader responsibility: “I think that our industry is under heavy scrutiny, and we need to continually show that we can reasonably satisfy most people with reclamation activities, with safety, with all the things that people like to frown on about our industry.”