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Program ID: Innovation Anthology #405
Program Date: 06/09/2011
Program Category: Energy, Environment, Forests, Oil Sands, Water

CONRAD Part 16: Dr. Jan Ciborowski on CFRAW

PROGRAM #405 INTERVIEW WITH DR. JAN CIBOROWSKI

MP3:   9.7 MB
Time:  13:10 Minutes

 

Dr. Jan Ciborowski, Professor, Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Windsor,  CFRAW  Carbon Dynamics, Food Web Structure and Reclamation Strategies in Athabasca Oil Sands Wetlands.   

 

Dr. Jan Ciborowski

 

CC:  CFRAW THAT IS AN AWFULLY COMPLICATED TITLE AND GROUP OF ISSUES THAT YOU’RE TRYING TO DEAL WITH.  CAN YOU TELL ME WHY YOU ARE APPROACHING THESE THINGS?

 

JC:  I and the other colleagues who are part of this project have been working on the oil sands area since around 2000.  And we all came from different backgrounds.  I did my PhD actually at Alberta and spent a little time there and wanted to come back out west to do some research. 

 

The oil sands were just expanding and we all had interests in restoration or toxicology or understanding what things looked like.  And there are opportunities to do some research. 

 

The principal investigators met one another on the oil sands area and recognized that our work was very complementary.  We had similar interests. 

 

As we found our original research came out and we found that that these ponds full of water aren’t dead even though we thought they might be, they actually had stuff in there and maybe there were really young things that had to go through a process of succession or maturation. 

 

So we started talking about well, how would you determine this.  Are these things really toxic or are they young?  And these oil sands companies, they have to restore these and it’s costing an incredible amount of money just to get the materials that they are using. 

 

So we wanted to integrate what our interests were and put together a story and we realized that an environment is a living thing and it’s a changing thing.  So the only way to really understand it is to look at the connections.  And the one connecting currency in a living system is carbon.

 

So it doesn’t matter if you are studying bacteria or bison, they are all transferring food, they’re all transferring carbon.  When plants and algae grow, they’re taking carbon out of the atmosphere.  And when we respire, we’re letting it go. 

 

So that was the unifying part of it, the carbon.  And so that’s why our title is Carbon Dynamics.  

 

And then the thing that makes the carbon flow is the food webs and that’s what we see as a viable thing. 

 

And then these wetlands are all brand new and they’re being reclaimed from what they were before, so that’s the third part of the term.  So CFRAW captures all those little bits and pieces and puts them into one story. 

 

CC:  IN YOUR PRESENTATION TODAY AT THE CONRAD SYMPOSIUM, ONE OF THE ISSUES THAT YOU ADDRESSED WAS THE IDEA OF SUSTAINABILITY.  SO LOOKING AT, ARE THESE RECLAIMED WETLANDS GOING TO BE SUSTAINABLE?  WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING AT THERE?

 

JC:  Well one can always start something off that looks really great.  You can grow a lawn on a gravel pit by putting a bit of topsoil and a lot of fertilizer on.  And it looks great for a couple of months until that wears off.  The same thing is true in anything you reclaim.    

 

You can spend a lot of money and actually look at it.  In wetlands you need to replace the topsoil or whatever.  But that topsoil is what gets broken down.  So the question is, is that topsoil going to stay there or is it going to be built up by the new plants developing or is this going to be broken down and decompose and take you back to a wasteland? 

 

So that gave the idea of the sustainability of things.  Obviously we wanted to get funding to do our research.  We had to show a benefit to the oil sands companies.  We said well they’re in a 100 year reclamation plan.  They don’t want to come back every year to make sure there’s enough water in the wetlands.  So, they’re idea of sustainability is also something that you build and leave.  And that it has the same function that a natural wetland did.  That’s where the idea of sustainability came from. 

 

CC:  AT THIS POINT CAN YOU SAY THAT YOU’RE SEEING SIGNS OF SUSTAINABILITY OR ARE YOU STILL DEVELOPING THE CRITERIA FOR THAT?

 

JC:  Everybody has a different definition.  Some of the most obvious things have very different interpretations.  And part of our job is to define what sustainability is. 

 

Is one living thing in a wetland or any environment sustainable?  It’s got life.  Maybe that is.  The agreements that the oil sands companies have say that the landscape they leave behind has to function in the same way as what was there before.  It doesn’t mean you’re going to get the same species.  You don’t get a 200 year old tree on a ten year old site.  But you might have shrubs that process the same amount of carbon and provide the same amount of food to something that goes by it.  And so that’s sustainable, I think. 

 

So sustainability is self maintaining and behaving in somewhat the same way that the original landscape was before they started to mine it.   

 

CC:  AS YOU AND YOUR COLLEAGUES DO YOUR RESEARCH, WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENCES OR CONTRAST THAT YOU ARE SEEING BETWEEN A NATURAL WETLAND AND WHAT YOU’VE GOT SO FAR IN TERMS OF THESE RECLAIMED OR RESTRUCTURED WETLANDS?

 

JC:  This might surprise you but we don’t spend that much time looking at natural wetlands. 

 

If you look at a forest that’s just been through a forest fire or has just been logged, you don’t compare it to a mature forest the next year.  You know it’s going to need 50 years, 80 years to recover. 

 

You monitor it by saying, well it should look like a 2 year old forest after 2 years or 5 years.  Wetlands don’t start from scratch normally.  So we compare the oil sands mined wetlands with other areas that have just been built or filled in with water that are the equivalent of a natural wetland that’s of the same age, and that’s where we draw our comparison. 

 

We do look at older wetlands that have been there for hundreds of years and we note the differences but we don’t expect them to be identical.  And they probably won’t be for a long period of time.

 

CC:  SO, IN THAT CASE THEN WHEN YOU ARE LOOKING AT NEW WETLANDS THAT AREN’T NECESSARILY A RESULT OF OIL SANDS DEVELOPMENT, WHAT DO YOU SEE THERE?  ARE THEY PROGRESSING IN THE SAME WAY OR ARE THERE SOME DIFFERENCES THAT NEED TO BE TAKEN INTO ACCOUNT?

 

JC:  It takes so much time to collect a sample and identify it and then do the analysis, that we’re now at the stage where we are integrating our data to answer that particular question. 

 

So, things look promising.  They seem to be moving in that direction.  The oil sands companies have been very supportive of this in that they have built experimental ponds to see if you put oil sands tailings and water in them, can they be normal?  But they’ve also built the best wetland they can with natural materials so you get an idea of what the natural successional process should be and that’s what we’re comparing. 

 

And we find that there’s a lot of salt in the oil sands water and that’s slowing down the process of what you’d expect to find in a fresh water wetland. 

 

If you were to compare it to a salty wetland in say southern Alberta, that’s pretty similar.  Again it’s a question of what’s natural. 

 

I think we would ultimately like to see things restored to the boreal system that was there before.  But what we’re seeing is natural to some extent for a salty system. 

 

CC:  WHAT ABOUT THE LEGACY OF TOXINS THAT MAY BE IN THAT PROCESS WATER? 

 

JC:  That was one of the real surprises to me and I came back having moved to Lake Erie which was known for all its PCB problems.  We came up with techniques for studying aquatic invertebrates that we could sample and look for the development of deformities and other things that indicated the effect of toxins on them.

 

And when I first started here, it was coming with the full expectation that we would find these deformed, really sick sort of things in these tailings ponds.  And they aren’t.  We looked and looked and this was one of the biggest surprises that the salts and naphthenic acids don’t seem to be bio available to the animals, partly because the water is salty and there is carbon in the water and that acts like a magnet and so although those materials are there, they don’t seem to be building up in the animals themselves. 

 

This is a real surprise to all of us. 

 

So you can call them toxins, you can call them compounds; the oil sands companies like to call them constituents because they are there in the natural environment, they’ve just become concentrated. 

 

And so things like PAHs, which we all hear about as being really nasty are there, they’re in the natural bitumen, they’re on the bottoms of the ponds.  The bugs are crawling in it, they’re eating it, they’re eating the bacteria on it, and they don’t seem to show any ill effects, and they don’t show any build up in their bodies of these things, which as I say is a real surprise. 

 

So they’re sustainable, they’re not what an old wetland in that area would look like. 

 

CC:  WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE CFRAW GROUP?

 

JC:  We really have to digest the data that we have.  There’s so much there. 

 

The oil sands companies have said they would like us to do CFRAW 2.  We have to think about some other big questions that would warrant another six years of our lives and all those grad students. 

 

But what’s really exciting is that they’ve taken the information that we’ve learned along the way and applied them to build some really full scale wetlands.  You’ve heard about Wapasu Lookout and the Sandhill Fen which is 50 hectares.  These are the size of the real wetlands in nature.  They’re learning about dynamics and about water management to try and make sure they are fresh water and have the characteristics of what they really want. 

 

And now that we know how to measure some of these things, it would be great to use our techniques and see, are they progressing the way we predict they should, if they are going to be sustainable or function as a freshwater wetland that we’d like to see. 

 

CC:  WHAT CAUTIONARY NOTES WOULD YOU HAVE FOR THE PUBLIC OR FOR MORE SCIENCE OR FOR THE OIL COMPANIES?

 

JC:  One really has to be aware of what’s going on.  One has to understand what’s being done. There’s an incredible amount of suspicion and mistrust and an awful lot of preconceptions.  I’ve always been an avid ecologist and naturalist.  I love to be out in the wilderness.  I got into biology by having opportunities to work for places that are disturbed, worked on a fire crew as an undergrad.  When I had done my masters and studied black fly larvae, I got a chance to work up in Uranium City and study black flies there.  And now I’m working on oil sands. 

 

In each case you think about those evil people, who are destroying environments, and you meet the people who work in the environment departments and they are just as committed as anybody else to try to restore things.  But they just don’t know the answers. 

 

That’s a real surprise.  We tend to think the worst until we find out different.  And it’s so hard to find out how things are really going on. 

 

So read a lot, listen a lot.  Get both sides of the story. 

 

There’s some really poor things that go on, I agree, but you have to really find out the context in some cases. 

 

CC:  THANK YOU VERY MUCH JAN.

 

JC:  Okay.

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