News FocusEcology

Eco-Alchemy in Alberta

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Science  20 Nov 2009:
Vol. 326, Issue 5956, pp. 1052-1055
DOI: 10.1126/science.326.5956.1052

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There's a roaring debate in Canada about whether tailings ponds—the standing pools of wastewater slurry that are created when oil is extracted from "tar sands"—and oil mines in general, are ecologically salvageable. No one knows whether they can ever support the same flora and fauna as undisturbed land because oil-mining companies have been reclaiming land for only a few decades, a short time ecologically, and on small scales. But one hint lies at Wood Bison Viewpoint, a 690-hectare park owned by Syncrude, a conglomerate owned by seven oil companies in Canada. The park is artificial, but it supports a real if modest forest with ducks and bison. To all appearances, it's a thriving ecosystem—and it sits atop an exhausted oil-pit mine. Syncrude "reclaimed" this land by covering it with soil, planting trees, and introducing wildlife. It represents dozens of years of effort and millions of dollars of research. Oil companies proudly end tours at Wood Bison Viewpoint to reassure the public that they can indeed rehabilitate disturbed land. But ecologists see shades of green, and not all are equal.