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Client, student, and Stantec partnerships: Working together to research new approaches

January 04, 2021

By Natalie Tashe

Collaboration is key to facilitating informative—and productive—research studies

A while back, I was at one of our client’s mine sites. They had hired a student to complete a study to look at the biological activity at a newly reclaimed mine. The report was written, learning noted, and the project wrapping up. During our discussion, they asked me: “Is there anything else we can do to build on this?”

It was a good question and one that got me thinking: How could we build on this research? How could we undertake similar projects in new research topics? This project had been a great model where the client and the Stantec-sponsored student had worked together toward a productive outcome. My answer? “Yes—let’s chat!”

Overlooking the reclaimed mine tailings at Gaspé Mines.

Biocrusts and their role in mine reclamation

Stantec partnered with the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) and Simon Fraser University (SFU), which offer a joint Master of Ecological Restoration program. They had reached out to me about partnering. Through that initial contact, we sponsored a student with a community development scholarship, as well as garnering additional financial support as an industry partner for a Mathematics of Information Technology and Complex Systems (MITACS) grant from the government. Having worked with Master student Heather Short—now a Stantec employee—on a previous research project about modelling barriers to animal movement on a legacy mine site, I was keen to explore biocrusts through a client-student-Stantec research project.

Biocrusts—bacteria, fungi, and algae that live in soil—are the building blocks to soil biological activity that plants need to grow and thrive. As part of mine closure and reclamation plans, the goal is to get a functioning ecosystem going, and biocrusts could play an important role in that process. So, working alongside the BCIT/SFU student, Shantanu Dutt, we had our next research topic.

Mushroom emerging from biocrust cover at Endako Mines tailings step-slopes. The golden cover is sporophytes of fire moss.

Lessons from tree planting

In British Columbia, research has shown inoculating tree seedling plugs with mycorrhizae—a fungus—helped them grow better. With the introduction of the fungus from the local area, the seedlings were found to better absorb nutrients and increase their root mass. Could we learn from this process and apply it to biocrusts? Our team had worked on a wind erosion project at a mine in British Columbia a few years back. I’d gone back years later and noted a biocrust level had formed. Thinking of our new biocrust research question, the seedlings made me wonder: Are there certain conditions that would help biocrusts form or accelerate their growth, and could we apply the learning from inoculation to this research?

As part of the ecological research program, we want to facilitate innovation, find new solutions, work alongside our clients, and explore evidence-based and scientific approaches to enhance the environment and our communities.

The research

Our student, accompanied by our team, studied mine tailings at three mines at Glencore’s operations in British Columbia and Quebec and at Centerra Gold’s Endako Mine to see how biocrust formed naturally and how we could facilitate its growth. We had already completed some of the reclamation at that site and knew that biocrusts had started to naturally form over time. These learnings were then applied to Taseko’s Gibraltar Mine. The team wanted to investigate the impact of shade and fertilizer on biocrust growth. So, as part of our research, the team set up two experiments. One was to see if inoculum and nutrients enhanced biocrust establishment, and the other to see if substrate (soil) and shade enhanced moss growth. The research showed that biocrusts, particularly when established with fertilizer, help with establishment of cover on mine tailings.

Close-up of fire moss growing on the seeded tailings of Gibraltar Mines. White particles are tailings sand.

The partnership

Stantec has been a sponsor of the joint Master of Science in Ecological Restoration program at BCIT and SFU since 2018. In fact, we were the first to connect students with an industry partner to work with the program. The first client-student-Stantec research project—the barriers to animal movement—focused on Caribou and was a highly positive experience working with First Nations communities, the client, and the academic institutions. It was also a great learning opportunity for the student working on a real-life project. In fact, Heather, who is now my co-worker, still works at the site two years later—a testament to our collective approach of continuing to build and develop the research project.

The same is true with the biocrust research. As well as a great learning opportunity and research paper, Shantanu gave a presentation in September during the British Columbia Technical and Research Committee on Reclamation’s annual symposium. The program for ecological restoration contacted us recently as another student is willing to further develop the soil biocrust research by setting up permanent plots for biocrust establishment and getting the technique more operationally friendly.

Being involved in the program is win-win. As part of the ecological research program, we want to facilitate innovation, find new solutions, work alongside our clients, and explore evidence-based approaches to enhance the environment and our communities. On that note, we have a couple of interesting projects in the works. Watch out for the next blog as we will highlight some of the advances in our research.

The testament to our success was a recent nomination for the Burnaby Business Excellence Awards in the category of Environmental Sustainability. We were honored to receive a letter of support from BCIT and SFU. We are proud to work in partnership with the Ecological Restoration team at BCIT and SFU, their students, and our clients making a difference in our communities.

Moss growing on tailings at Gaspé Mines.

Wrapping up with a thank you

I must commend and thank our clients: Teck for the Caribou modelling and Gibraltar mines (BC), Glencore, and Centerra Gold for the biocrust research. Quite simply, this research would not have been possible without them and their support. They supported the student in providing real-life projects, space, samples, and funding—all essential to the research project. We recognize the importance of their role in the research, as well as their trust in our team. We are looking forward to working together on projects in the future and continuing this research.

  • Natalie Tashe

    With over 18 years in terrain and soil science, reclamation, and ecology, Natalie has led teams of engineers, water quality specialists, hydrologists, vegetation ecologists, and wildlife biologists.

    Contact Natalie
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