Experiencing the Athabasca Bituminous Sands

The form, material and experience of space is both produced by and produces culture.  While design may seek to actively control the engagement of an object with the world, the effect of an engineered object on culture is often unintentional.


Visible from space, the Athabasca bituminous sands region is currently being engineered at a scale equal to or greater than any other human landscape project.  This massive earth moving operation which at first glance could be confused for a regional urban development, has but one single objective: oil.  Here, in the headwaters of the Athabasca river is found Canada's largest petroleum reserve and either the second or third largest known global petroleum deposit.  Spread over an approximate 500 km2 or 20 percent of the total bituminous sands region below ground reserves are found close enough to the surface to be open pit mined.  Since 1967 corporate operators have been moving earth out of the way and processing sand and rock to extract bitumen, a semi-solid form of petroleum that must be upgraded to become oil.


And yet we do not see landscape architects engaged in the design and specifically the topographic shaping of these sites of extraction, production, waste and reclamation.  Nor are there many examples of landscape architects contributing smaller scale interventions which acknowledge the human occupation of these sites, their experience and material realities.


In the following pages are ten proposals, of which five are design improvements to existing sites and five are new sites of intervention.  Together they establish a circuit of unique moments in significant areas of the Athabasca bituminous sands operations and capitalize on the existing tourist experience.  In each case the landscape design serves as the armature to experience the sites though their exceptional materials, environment, forms, and ecology.  In this sense the designs provide the same function as a picture frame or a gallery wall, while it is the bituminous sands operators, the engineers who must recognize themselves as the land artists.  One is reminded of Alexander Pope’s proclamation that “all gardening is landscape-painting; just like a landscape hung up,” and here these proposals provide the point of entry into the painting.

Proposed Additions

1 Petcoke Lake

2 Boreal Forest

3 SAGD Well

4 Sulfur Plateau

5 Tailings Pond


6 Giants of Mining

7 Wood Bison Trail

8 Wapisiw Lookout

9 Crane Lake

10 Sandhill Fen

Petcoke Cap

Site One

Petroleum coke, or petcoke, is a by-product of upgraded bitumen.  Similar to sulfur, it has economic value but the logistics of moving the product from northern Alberta to market is difficult.  Petcoke can be burned for energy, but because it has such a high carbon content it releases even more carbon dioxide than coal.  As a result of this combined difficulty in moving and low efficiency there are vast stockpiles of petcoke in the Athabasca bituminous sands region.


Suncor Energy Inc. has been testing the use of petcoke to remediate tailings.  The process called coke capping involves spreading petcoke over the tailings lake in the winter when the water is frozen.  When the lake thaws in the spring the petcoke remains buoyant and is strong enough to carry machinery used to layer more petcoke over the lake.  Wick drains are inserted though the coke cap to remove water from the tailings lake.  Once this process is completed dry tailings will be isolated with a barrier of petcoke, on top of which a new stratum can be spread, able to support the growth of vegetation.


Suncor is using this technique on Pond 5, an innocuous name for 230 hectare toxic tailings lake.


Proposed here in the following pages is a platform set into a petcoke basin and an adjacent overlook platform placed atop an undistributed petcoke pile.  The elevated platform pushes the deep black of the 90% carbon petcoke back into the horizon against the Suncor refinery, while the sunken platform gives only the sky as an escape from the light absorbing petroleum coke.

Boreal Forest

Site TWO

In parts of the Athabasca bituminous sands region bitumen is found close enough to the surface to be mined.  Mining requires the land be stripped of vegetation, drained of water, and then cleared of overburden.  Although this top surface of the earth has negligible economic value compared to the buried bitumen sands, taken together the vegetation, hydrology and soil embody significant historical evolutionary development.


While the surface mineable area (SMA) of the bituminous sands is only a small portion of the total area where bitumen reserves are found, to date it still accounts for approximately 50,000 hectares.  This area of disturbance will continue to expand and more land will be cleared of previously untouched forest.  Because the bituminous sands are found so far from any urban development in the north of Alberta, the boundary between forest and mine can be very sharp.  And although SAGD is beginning to radically transform the contiguous boreal forest, it remains possible in some locations to walk across a boundary from industrial land use to boreal forest.


Proposed here in the following pages is an elevated platform set just shy of the average height of the regions dominant vegetation, the black spruce.  Guests begin by walking out to the platform through undisturbed boreal forest.  The dense vegetation immerses the visitor in a cool, dark, quiet and still environment.  At the end of the procession the elevated platform casts a solid shadow down on the visitor holding them in darkness.  Upon ascending a ladder to the top, guests are thrown into the light; given expansive views of the sky; and placed just above the reaches of the spruce trees as they stretch towards the sun.



If Alberta had conventional oil reserves instead of oil bound to sand, then we would expect to see the landscape of the Athabasca region littered with oil well pump jacks.  The kind we imagine when thinking about Texas or Kuwait.  But because bitumen is highly viscous and can not be pulled from the ground, the earth itself must be physically moved to where it can be processed and upgraded to faster flowing hydrocarbons like gasoline.  And yet only twenty percent of the bitumen can be extracted this way.  The remaining majority of bitumen is found too far below ground, outside of the surface mineable area (SMA).  SAGD has been developed as method to access these deep bitumen reserves.


Steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) is described as a rather benign extraction method by the oil and gas industry.  A well pad is connected to an underground network of paired horizontal wells.  Steam is pumped down one well where it melts and mixes with the bitumen below ground and is thus able to be collected and pumped up though the adjacent well.  This technology has significant water use requirements and is putting pressure on the Athabasca river which flows through the bituminous sands region.  A pressure that will only increase as SAGD operations expand.


Proposed here in the following pages is a stair well and sunken platform.  The visitor is taken to a decommissioned well pad and is invited to descend 1,300 feet into the earth – the average depth of bitumen deposits.  Moving slowly down the winding stairs, the fatiguing guest is able to rest on a series of alternating landings where they are always held close to the earth.  Darkness, silence, cold and the relentless stairs will reduce the sensory inputs and force attention to the slowly changing textures and colors of the earth.  The despair of descent is offset by the singular experience of being in proximity to the earth at such a depth.  The desire to accelerate the climb out is slowed by the need to watch one’s step.

Sulfur Piles


Bitumen, the petroleum that is mined from Canada’s Athabasca bituminous sands region is composed of roughly 83% carbon, 10.5% hydrogen, 1% oxygen, 0.5% nitrogen, and 5% sulfur.  As the bitumen is upgraded, washed and separated, sulfur is one of the end products.


While there exists a global market for sulfur, the price of the commodity fluctuates and transportation from northern Alberta to market is difficult.  Already in the year 2000 Canada was ranked second in global sulfur production according to the Ministry of Natural Resources Canada.


In order to protect against market fluctuations and to avoid devaluing the price of the commodity, oil sands operators have resorted to stockpiling sulfur in a process known as blocking.  Molten sulfur is poured into a mold fortified with an aluminum perimeter staked 10-20 meters high.  After pouring the liquid sulfur will solidify in 8 hours and remain in an inert solid state.


Proposed here in the following pages is a stair and platform.  The stair’s treads are compressed to accentuate the verticality of the landscape.  The steep climb gives way to a small platform resting atop the final sulfur block. The horizontal surface last measured around 320 x 250 meters.  The beauty of the unique experience of the yellow sulfur block against the horizon is only to be interrupted by thoughts of the ecological impacts on biodiversity of producing singular environments; on the damaging effects of this volume of sulfur on adjacent environments; and by the unpalatable smell of sulfur.

Tailings Pond


The Mildred Lake Settling Basin (MLSB) is by volume of construction material, the largest earthen structure in the world.  It is only one of many tailings ponds, existing and proposed in the Athabasca bituminous sands region.  It should also be said that to call these designed structures “ponds” is a misnomer.  “Tailings Lake” better communicates the scale of these artificial constructions.  And while “tailings embankment” or “tailings dam” gives a stronger sense of their engineered origins, these two terms seem to speak less to the body of toxic liquids just beyond the earthen structure.


Infamously, Syncrude Canada Ltd. was fined $3 million in 2008 when more than 1,600 ducks were killed in the company’s tailings basins.  The amount of money or number of birds that died pales in significance to the scaling of the future issues faced by the storage of this quantity of toxic liquid in unlined earthen structures.


And yet as photographs show, the Mildred Lake Settling Basin is also strikingly beautiful.  The viscous toxic liquid has a higher surface tension and thus a greater resistance to wind and wave action.  This means the Albertan sky is more perfectly reflected.


Proposed here in the following pages is a platform extended out over the tailings pond and an adjacent elevated lookout.  As visitors walks out onto the projected platform they must balance their discomfort at being suspended above a toxic liquid that will kill them with the promise of an instagramable moment of beauty, where sky and earth invert their cosmic relation.  The elevated lookout provides more safety and distance from the toxic pond but extends the visitors perspective, forcing a confrontation with the scale of destruction and requiring an admission that distance does not separate one from the consequences of our actions.

Giants of Mining

Site SIX

On site at the Syncrude Canada Ltd. Giants of Mining Exhibit are two decommissioned machines.  A bucketwheel reclaimer and a dragline.  Syncrude Bucketwheel Reclaimer #2 was one of four constructed by the German firms of Friedrich Krupp AG and Orenstein & Koppel and assembled between 1977 and 1978 by the Bechtel Corporation.  The scale of this machine is hard to imagine.  While it requires only three operators, the average production rate is 6,150 tones per hour.  For comparison the average US car weighs 2 tones.  Or for a different comparison, Bucketwheel #2 moved close to the same volume of material that was excavated for the construction of the Panama Canal.


The other decommissioned machine at the Syncrude exhibit is a dragline – Dragline #2, BE 2570 “Discovery.”  This machine was constructed by the American company Bucyrus International, Inc.  Working in pairs, this dragline is one of four owned by Syncrude that complimented the collection of bucketwheel reclaimers.  The average production rate is a similar astonishing 6,500 tones per hour and up until it was decommissioned, Discovery is said to have moved 624 million tones of bituminous sand, a near unfathomable one third more volume of material than was excavated for the construction of the Panama Canal.


The combined material moved by these two machines is approximately 1,064,000,000 tones.  This unfathomable number is the product of only two decommissioned machines having operated in one mine for one company.


This site makes powerful use of the industrial sublime.  The visitor is at this moment forced to consider humans as a geologic force.  Our technology has allowed us to transform the surface of the earth on par with the action of plate tectonics – with volcanoes or earthquakes.  The two machines impress in scale, proposed here is to simply neutralize the context within which the machines sit by adding a uniform level plinth.

Wood Bison Trail


In 1997 the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects presented a Regional Award to EIDOS for their planning, design, and implementation of the Wood Bison Trail.  The work completed for Syncrude Canada Ltd. is primarily focused around the 4 km “Matcheetowan Discovery Trails” through “Gateway Hill.”  While the trail itself seems uninspired in comparison to the rich Boreal Forest ecology just beyond the expanding edge of the landscapes of extraction and waste, perhaps the significance of the project is tied to the unique status of Gateway Hill as the only certified reclaimed land in the entire Athabasca bituminous sands region.


In close relation to the trail are a series of designed site markers, interpretive signage and access points.  As told to us by EIDOS: “the development of the Wood Bison Trail provided the opportunity for Syncrude to communicate visitor information and its corporate vision of responsible economic growth which respects local aboriginal, environmental and community values.”  The design exercise culminates in the Wood Bison Gateway, the artist Brian Clark’s siltstone carving of seven bison.


But the sculptures, which appear as in a sombre dark grey rock, have the unfortunate presence of tombstones.  Surrounded by so much ongoing habitat destruction, it feels too early to celebrate the growth in population of the wood bison and their official move from an endangered to threatened species.


Proposed here in the following pages is an addition to the Wood Bison Trail designed to push further this perceivable tension between destruction and reclamation.  The existing Wood Bison Viewpoint is drawn out over the West In-Pit (WIP) tailings pond.  The platform is made of locally logged timber, and the structure is light so as to make more powerful the feeling of floating above the toxic liquid below.  The picturesque reflections trace a mirrored view of the ongoing Syncrude operations and the remarkably vibrant colors of both the reduced and reclaimed landscape.

Wapisiw Lookout

Site Eight

Pond One, the historic first tailings pond of 1967 in the Athabasca bituminous sands region was used until 1997 by Suncor Energy, Inc.  The pond grew with the industry, and when closed encompassed an area of 220 hectares, a feat made possible by the engineering of massive earthen embankments that toped out at a staggering 100 meters above the Athabasca River.  Once filled, this vast quantity of toxic liquid was left to settle but made far slower than anticipated progress.  Progress slower than that set by Suncor’s targets.


2009 brought a new initiative.  Directive 074, the Tailings Performance Criteria and Requirements for Oil Sands Mining Schemes was issued by the (now former) Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB), an agency of the Government of Alberta.  The primary objective of Directive 074 was to hold mineable oil sands operators accountable for tailings management.  Clearly it was stated: “they have not met the targets set out in their applications; as a result, the inventories of fluid tailings that require long-term containment have grown. With each successive application and approval, public concerns have also grown.”


One of the stated goals, “to create a trafficable landscape at the earliest opportunity to facilitate progressive reclamation,” was met by Suncor only a few years later.  Pond One became the first tailings pond to be capped with a trafficable surface.  The thickened tailings were layered with 30 million tonnes of sand and topped with a 50-centimeter deep layer of topsoil.  Pond One was then renamed Wapisiw Lookout, trading depression for elevation – topographically speaking.


Proposed here in the following pages is a sunken platform filled with sand.  The artificial beach reminds visitors that half a meter below the land around them is a continuous sand landscape floating above a vast lake of semi solid toxic tailings.  The beach is also encircled with a containing bench signaling a reminder that surrounding the sunny retreat is a vast uncertified reclaimed habitat.  One is never clear if the intention is too keep out or to keep in, to protect the sensitive habitat or the stakeholder.  Directive 074 was suspended in 2015.

Crane Lake


The body of water named Crane Lake was built in the mid-1970s.  This celebrated reclamation and habitat area was a mistake.  Originally the site was to serve as a tailings pond but the early earth moving operations of Suncor Energy, Inc. mistakenly caused a filling of the embankments with fresh water.  This impounded body of water was isolated from the Athabasca River and from the surrounding bituminous sands operations.  As Suncor expanded their operations and cleared more land for extraction the site of this defunct tailings pond was used to stockpile overburden.


Overburden is the unflattering name given to the material that lies above the bitumen deposits and which must be cleared before the economically valuable resource can be accessed.  For much of the Athabasca bituminous sands region the so called overburden waste material is biologically rich muskeg.  Left largely untouched the muskeg and fresh water stored at Crane Lake have revegetated on their own.  Today the artificial lake is an oasis surrounded by toxic tailings ponds and the enormous pet coke capped Pond 5.


The name Crane Lake was given to acknowledge the site as a bird habitat, with the Sandhill Crane being the lake’s namesake.  The site was opened to the public in 1994 and in 2006 received improvements.  Interpretive signage was added to educate guests on Suncor’s reclamation techniques.  A few years later Suncor made a more significant investment in the wellbeing of birds.  2008 brought an investment of $1.5 million from the Suncor Energy Foundation in Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC).  Of course 2008 was also the year Syncrude Canada Ltd. was ordered to pay $3 million for the death of 1,606 birds.  A few years later in 2010 when 550 birds died no charges were laid.


Proposed here in the following pages is a radial array of artificial bird perches.  As one of the only safe lakes in the area, the design intent is to make as much nesting habitat as possible.  Precedent is found at Pond One (Wapisiw Lookout) where steel poles were set into the landscape.  The strategy at this site is to conflate artificial and natural, using aluminum poles in a geometric pattern to create instant habitat.  The durability of the material allows for the poles to be moved to other reclamation sites in the future.

Sandhill Fen

Site Ten

While not exactly interchangeable, commonly a fen is called a bog and in the Canadian Boreal region the term Muskeg is used.  This type of landscape is characterized by having a water table which fluctuates within 20 centimetres of the surface.  It is endemic to the Athabasca bituminous sands region covering an approximate 43% of the pre-disturbed landscape but must be destroyed, cleared as overburden, for access to underground bitumen deposits.  For the bituminous sands operators, Fens are a particular concern as no one has attempted to create one of these complex wetland landscapes artificially.  That is until Syncrude Canada Ltd.’s attempt on 52 hectares of the closed East In-Pit tailings pond, given the name Sandhill Fen.


The fen is actually a smaller portion of the reclamation site, at around 15 hectares, but to date the largest proven fen wetland restoration was a much smaller half hectare study.  The process Syncrude undertook at the East In-Pit tailings pond started with a sand cap cover suspended above the semi solid toxic tailings in a process similar to that developed at Pond One (Wapisiw Lookout).  At the low point of the sand cap is a discharge area, and the innovation in this case was to hold collected water towards producing an artificial wetland at the low point.  The area was also layered with a half meter deep spreading of salvaged live peat material from surrounding cleared muskeg landscapes.


Proposed here in the following pages is a depressed platform submerging guests into the reclamation project.  At five feet lower than the surrounding landscape, the platform brings the surface to eye level.  The rich mosses which are the foundational species of a fen can be seen up close.  While some of the other interventions provided a lookout, here the experience of the overall view is traded for a disorienting experience with detail.  The close view of individual mosses and grasses shows generous diversity, while the distant view sinks visitors into an infinite sea of green.  Were it not for the ongoing input of fertilizers, freshwater, and the underdrain control system required for the maintenance of this artificial fen, it might almost appear as a success of reclamation and a demonstration of the restorative potential of nature.


Fionn Byrne, Phantom Ecology, (Self Published, 2016).