Lethbridge Herald, The (Newspaper) - February 19, 1974, Lethbridge, Alberta
2 LETHBRIDGE HERALD-Tunday, February 19, 1974 What can you grow in tar sand soil? MOTHER NATURE IN A GREENHOUSE By AL SCARTH, Herald Staff Writer Seeding little pots of tar sands hostile to vegetation with barley may not sound like a rewarding line of work. But government researchers in Lethbridge are doing just that. They are playing mother nature to a massive patch of Alberta. These environmental architects have a tremendous challenge on their hands. At stake is square miles of the province to be devastated by the strip mining techniques used to recover valuable tar sands around Fort McMurray. "With present surface mining techniques, we are looking at the serious disruption of 30 townships square says Dave Graveland, head of the technical development branch for the provincial department of the environment. The important task of healing that "disruption" has begun here tinder Mr. Graveland who heads a team of experts centred at the provincial administration offices in the city. The department is co-operating with private industry in the reclamation research. To imagine the immense scale of this unique job, one must visualize a thousand- square mile chunk of land boosted 100 feet in the air. The muskeg will have been ripped away. It is virtually certain controversy will Biology student Dave Nishi (left) adds fertili- zer to tar sand soil now being tested near Leth- bridge. Project agrol- ogist Henry Regier (right) plants barley seed in another part of the experiment. arise between those environmentalists who believe the land should be left exactly as it was and those who see nothing wrong in altering the landscape. It is also certain that replacing the muskeg as before would be immensely difficult. "We are trying to come up with a habitat as good or better than it is says Mr. Graveland. "The magnitude of it is fantastic. Pits up to 300 feet deep must be reclaimed one way or another It is certainly going to be a massive disturbance of a large part of the area. With the amount of sand to be disrupted, you could make all the glass in the world and still have some left over. "In the future we are looking at a landscape raised about 100 feet. We have to get a pleasing landscape and vegetate it." The land will be higher after the mining because material returned to the pits will not compact to the same degree it is now. "We are trying to come up with some mixture of materials not as hostile to vegetation as tailing sand (left over after processing) or lean tar sands This is a major snag from an economic point of view. When the land is -stripped away, the relatively hospitable organic materials good for growing things peat moss is one example turn up on the bottom. The researchers are experimenting with various mixtures of tar sands, peat, fertilizer and other available materials. Barley is being used in the experimental plantings because they are good universal indicators of the yieldJrom different mixes. And they grow quickly. Doing the actual planting is University of Lethbridge biology student Dave Nishi. He is being employed under the Priority Employment Program for four months at a cost of It is a preliminary study with field tests of trees and other vegetation to be tried later. "There is no sense in growing trees in the says project agrologist Henry Regier. Men will be able to decide where they want their trees, lakes and hills on the artifical plateau. "We're playing Mother Nature says Mr. Regier. But it will be a long time before giant fields of barley waft gently in the breeze, considering the severe climate of the region. Other possibilities include game reserves although improving technology could present a roadblock. Oil companies may find new ways to pump out oil Jrom the sands under the surface and be in the area for many years.