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On the Road Again: Fort McMurray 2016

Apr 12, 2016

The King’s Environmental Impact Assessment class and an Environmental Chemistry class hit the road north to Fort McMurray to visit Syncrude in Alberta oil sands. Along the way we made a stop at ALPAC (Alberta Pacific Forest Industries) pulp mill in Boyle, Alberta. As per usual, we met at King’s at 8 am with our sleeping bags and warm clothes ready for another King’s adventure. A Charter bus picked up our group of 30 including Dr. Spaling and Dr. Mahaffy. After about two hours on the bus we arrived at the community of Boyle where ALPAC’s pulp mill is located. The pulp mill is one of the largest in Alberta with some of the most up to date technology available. We were given hard-hats, reflector jackets, and safety glasses to wear through the tour of the mill. I personally found the mill to be fascinating in the way pulp is processed, broken down, and dyed to a state of white perfection. After completing the mill’s tour, we piled back onto the bus, ate our pre-packed lunches and followed ALPAC employees to one of ALPAC’s reclamation land sites. We arrived at a piece of land that had primarily young trees. After virtually clear-cutting a section of land, ALPAC re-plants the area to encourage proper reclamation. The hope, with reclamation, is to bring back the original ecosystem of the area, to the same level that it was before the forest was harvested. ALPAC is proud to meet all requirements of a re-claimed site. We all got back on the bus and finished the journey to Fort Mac. Upon arrival, we immediately went out for supper as a group to a local Boston Pizza. It was a great way to finish off a full day of driving and learning. After supper we made our way to a church that kindly offered to accommodate our large crew. Half of our group spent the rest of the evening playing cards where the other half very studiously tried to get a bit of homework done. Dr. Mahaffy was sure that everyone would have lights out by 11, but I am still unclear if that actually happened. Everyone set up their beds on the floor, the women camped upstairs and the men downstairs, with the exception of the two professors who claimed a room for their own. In the morning there were a group of students that prepared breakfast, of which everyone enjoyed. Dr. Mahaffy got the day started on an uplifting note by leading morning devotion. Once breakfast was over, everyone was assigned a duty to clean up the church. Then we were on the road again by 9.

A Syncrude bus took us to an oil extraction and refinery company based about 30 kilometres outside of Fort McMurray, the first impression of the refinery was gloomy and stripped of life. The bus brought us to Syncrude’s visitor centre where they gave a lecture about their reclamation sites and what is done after the dig sites are exhausted or in other words no longer worth extracting bitumen from based on the quality left over. We also stopped at an active mine they were currently extracting from. The sheer size of the mine was astonishing with the trucks they use to haul the material from the mine being a few stories in height. We headed back to the visitors centre for a lunch they provided for us, and continued on our quest to a few of their reclamation sites. Considering what implications come with the action of strip mining (stripping layers of the earth soil to expose under layers), I was pleasantly surprised at how well they plan to re-establish functional ecosystems on those sites. After a few more hikes and lessons from our guides. The four hour return home gave me time to think about the firsthand knowledge I have gained on this trip, seeing the oil sands in person, and learning more about the major driving forces in Alberta’s Economy. It was eye opening and an incredibly insightful trip!

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