AER Blog

 

Reclaiming the Land: The AER Conducts its First Coal Reclamation Certificate Inquiry

By: Ryan Puhlmann, science specialist, Closure & Liability

Posted: November 3, 2014

At the end of March, the Alberta Energy Regulator took over responsibility for overseeing the reclamation of former energy project sites. As you can imagine, in a province with a wealth of energy development activity, this is a big job—and a critically important one.

In early October, staff from the AER’s Closure & Liability and Environment & Operational Performance Branches examined 256 hectares of land west of Edmonton, near Wabamun, as part of the AER’s first reclamation certificate inquiry.

The site we visited was diverse, consisting of thick trees, native grasses, wetlands, and farm land. Only 14 years ago, TransAlta’s Whitewood coal mine occupied this land. The mine site had a footprint of about 1900 hectares. To date, 890 hectares have been certified as reclaimed. The Whitewood area we examined had been going through the reclamation process for more than a decade.

Our job on this beautiful fall day was to validate what TransAlta claims it has done on the site. The reclamation certificate inquiry process is intensive and thorough, drawing on reclamation plans that have been in place since before the Whitewood mine project began.

When a company applies for an energy development project, it must also demonstrate its plans to reclaim the site once construction and operation is complete—no matter what the size and scale of the project is. The AER requires energy companies to provide reclamation plans well before a shovel is in the ground. The objective is to return the land to equivalent land capability, which means that after the conservation and reclamation efforts are complete, the land can support various uses that existed before the project began. The uses may not be identical, but we’re looking for something close.

Throughout an energy project, a company must adhere to and adjust those reclamation plans as development aspects change and regulatory requirements evolve. Once the resource has been extracted, the company must fully reclaim the site, in many cases alongside development. Reclamation is not as easy as planting a few seeds and watching them grow. Reclamation of a large mine site is complex and can take decades to complete, and is often accompanied by monitoring programs that test performance and overall readiness.

The AER’s job is to verify that a company is meeting its regulatory approval objectives and has achieved its planned reclamation outcomes. AER staff examine vegetation, wetlands, soil conditions (physical and chemical), and ultimately the soil profile to ensure that enough reclamation material exists to support sustainable growth. The reclamation certification application is supported by laboratory analysis to confirm that soil and water quality (if appropriate) measurements are within regulatory limits.

Companies have to file a reclamation certificate application verifying that they’ve completed the work required by their regulatory approvals. These applications include items such as their seed mixes, landscape condition, soil profile, soil chemistry and water quality, wildlife resources, and the overall reclaimed land capability.

Once AER staff are satisfied that reclamation work has been completed, we will issue a reclamation certificate to the company, marking the end of the project. The reclamation certificate is the pinnacle achievement for industry and the ultimate reward for reclamation practitioners. Review of TransAlta’s reclamation certificate application for the 256 hectares of the Whitewood mine is in its final stages at this time.


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