Wood Bison prove resilient during wildfire
The manager of the Beaver Creek Wood Bison Ranch knew transporting roughly 300 head of bison on short notice was not an option when the May 2016 wildfire forced the evacuation of Fort McMurray, shut down oil sands operations a few days later and threatened air quality throughout the region.
So Brad Ramstead did the next best thing to monitor the health of the herd and ensure they had food and water – he stayed prepared and ready to return to the ranch as soon as he could. It was right in the peak of calving season after all, and like any rancher, Brad didn’t want to be too far away. Not being able to properly care and check on these animals daily is a rancher’s worst nightmare.
Yet, despite the wildfire and the evacuation of the Syncrude site, the month of May saw 54 healthy calves welcomed to the Beaver Creek Wood Bison Ranch, which is co-managed by Syncrude and the Fort McKay First Nation. By the end of the calving season, 90 new animals were born, bringing the herd count to 280.
Syncrude received many questions from media and others about the status of the herd during the wildfire, but Brad was confident the animals would continue to thrive.
“The early days following the fire, people tried to get a grasp on what had just happened. It was an unbelievable reality that was really hard to comprehend and one did a lot of soul searching,” says Brad. “Nobody really knew what was left or if we would even have a place to go home to. But there was still a family and a bison herd that needed to be looked after. That part was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do, and the other part that was so overwhelming is the extreme kindness and friendship that exploded from all over. My wife Carmen and I had call after call from all over Canada and the United States offering any form of help, from prayers, to trucking, to ranch hands, to a place to stay, whatever was needed. I actually had to get Carmen to send information out to several key contacts so they could relay it forward to the associations and all that were interested as I could not talk to everyone.”
Some community members had questions specifically how smoke from the wildfires would impact the bison. “Bison are used to a certain degree of smoke, they evolved with it and don’t have a problem with it,” explains Brad. “In some areas in Canada where biting flies and insects are really bad, ranchers have eased the pressure on their livestock by burning old straw or hay to create a smudge. Bison will migrate to the thick smoke and seem to enjoy the reprieve from the insects.”
The wildfire of 2016 will long be remembered for its devastating effect on this region and the people who call Wood Buffalo home. No doubt it will also be seen as the catalyst that brought a community closer together throughout the rebuild. We only have to look at the wood bison grazing on reclaimed land as an example.
“Ask any bison rancher and they’ll tell you that these animals always seem to amaze you in their resilience and ability to persevere through adverse conditions,” says Brad. “It gives you a real sense of pride to think that you are involved with family, friends and an entire community that could have only made it by working together. We got through the main event and continue moving forward by working together and supporting one another much the same way a bison herd lives each and every day.”
Green Thumbs Up
Despite a later than-usual start due to the regional wildfire, Syncrude’s reclamation efforts continued apace during 2016. Throughout a three-week window, more than 383,000 trees and shrubs were planted in June alone, including hazelnut, a unique characteristic species.
A characteristic species is used to define a particular plant community, and the beaked hazelnut classifies as a “d-ecosite” community throughout the region. Around 2,400 such plants were planted in the year’s program.
“It’s a species we are not usually able to grow in large numbers, it was a great opportunity to plant them,” says Syncrude vegetation specialist Eric Girard. “Hazelnut trees are good gauges to determine the health of an ecosystem, plus they attract animals such as squirrels and other small rodents to our reclamation landscape.”
Starting in her role in late June, co-op student Lera Domingue was eager to help the team and learn about the tree planting process. “We each had two bags on either side of us, and planted until we got the job done. It was hard work but it was rewarding,” says Lera.
With the delays caused by the wildfire, Eric and his team were uncertain about the year’s tree planting, and feared the associated risks with planting too late in the season.
“We started to get worried. Around June 25th is when everyone normally stops planting frozen stocks,” he says. “Our trees and shrubs were in the greenhouse using up energy since September of 2015. At some point they would run out. The trees would not have survived unless we planted them.”
The team’s efforts made a difference. Syncrude ended the year with 408,000 seedlings in the ground and 126 hectares of land reclaimed – 15 per cent more than planned.
Co-Mixing: Simple technology tackles tailings
Syncrude has a suite of options to work with fluid fine tailings (FFT) – the residual water, clay and fine solids that results from the bitumen extraction process. Composite tailings (dewatering), centrifuge and water capping are methods used to draw out the solids and free up water for evaporation or to recycle for extraction.
A new innovation that mixes the FFT with unusable overburden could soon be added to the list. FFT and Overburden Co-mixing is a simple process that can have a significant impact on tailings management and land reclamation.
When mining begins, the layers of earth above the oil sands deposit are stripped away and later used to reclaim mined out sites. The Clearwater Formation is a layer directly above the oil sand that is rich in clay. Often referred to as Kc, this material has limited use because it is hard to work with.
Co-mixing takes two unwanted materials – FFT and Kc – and combines them to make a useful landform construction material.
Success is credited to the mixing ratios. “It’s like cookie dough,” says research associate Nan Wang. “It’s a mix of wet and dry. If you have too much liquid, you add more flour.”
In the process, Kc material is placed on a conveyor where it is sprayed with FFT. The mixture is then deposited in a mined-out pit where it hardens.
Depending on its end use the product can be mixed in different ways with varied results. It can be used to build roads, berms, or as a base for reclamation soils. Make a road with it and light equipment can drive on top within a month of the material being placed. Build a formation and a month later you can reclaim it.
“The best part is that we didn’t have to create anything new to make this happen,” says Nan. “We used off-the-shelf technology – equipment we already had and put it to use.”
Solving the Issue with Clay
A new method to deal with the clay particles that prevent tailings from fully settling is a potential game changer for tailings reclamation and water efficiency.
A Syncrude team led by research scientist Simon Yuan has developed a clay treatment method that draws the water out of the clay. The process involves adding a water treatment chemical called flocculant to the fluid fine tailings (FFT) material, followed by another chemical “collector” to make the clay surfaces repel water.
It’s an important development for tailings management at Syncrude. FFT has been accumulating in tailings ponds on site for nearly 40 years. Water is critical to the operation and a lot of the water Syncrude uses is recycled from the ponds. But FFT is an issue because clay particles make it difficult to work with. If FFT can be managed, it will make more water available for recycling and have less of an impact on the space it takes in storage.
“There are at least 10 different processes we can think of to apply the clay treatment technology,” says Simon.
The key is to make the clay particles repel water, the same way poles of a magnet resist each other. Once the flocculant-collector recipe is mixed with FFT, one of two things can happen next.
The first scenario is clay flotation where the mixture is stirred, air is added and clay froth floats to the top of the vessel. The froth is removed and dewatered, leaving behind material that hardens to a 50 per cent solid state within 24 hours.
The second option is an emerging method that involves dewatering the FFT stream that is treated with the flocculant-collector mixture through physical separation processes like low-pressure filtration, centrifugation, or sedimentation.
FFT treated in this way could have a higher dewatering rate and consolidate faster, making clay treatment technology another option to accelerate the tailings reclamation process.
“We believe this could be a low cost and effective solution that can be implemented on the spot to treat tailings and free up more water for extraction,” says Simon.
The clay treatment method has been tested successfully in the lab and is now being piloted in the field.
Upgrades improve handy data gathering tool
An initiative piloted at Syncrude nearly a decade ago to improve reliability and process efficiency continues to reap rewards.
Introduced in 2008, IntelaTrac is a data collection tool that allows operators to take readings from equipment and units using a handheld device about the size of a debit/credit card machine. The electronic information eliminated the inefficient practice of recording such readings on paper, also enabling easier data analysis. The devices allow operators to conveniently view current and historical information so they can determine performance trends and make appropriate decisions. The device also alerts an operator immediately if something is out of the ordinary.
A major upgrade of both the devices themselves and the IntelaTrac software was completed in March 2016. There are now nearly 200 units being used across Syncrude.
“IntelaTrac is a great tool. It catches issues at their earliest inception, before they lead to failure,” says training team leader Adam Gladue. “If there’s a problem with a temperature, a level or a pressure, it will provide prompts for an operator to complete certain actions.”
Required daily readings are downloaded to the device for operators to check during their rounds. Equipment commonly examined includes pump stations, pressure safety valves, and safety showers. Completion, performance, and deviations are tracked and reported. The upgraded units are also equipped with cameras, enabling operators to take photos and attach them to work notifications.
Kimberly Hooper, Syncrude’s IntelaTrac site administrator, says reliability and technical teams are becoming fully engaged in the system, which is making a major difference.
“They’re notified when something is starting to go wrong with the health of a particular piece of equipment and can begin trending the problem to determine solutions to fix it,” says Kimberly. “There’s no limit on the data IntelaTrac can hold, so information can be pulled from as far back as 2008, or as recently as the previous six-day shift cycle.”