Scientists are studying ways that plants and their associated microbes can clean up wastewater from oil sands processes using constructed wetland treatment systems.
The big question is: will the public support such an approach?
Brock University economist Diane Dupont is aiming to find out. She is creating a national public survey to gauge the extent to which people value technologies that harness the power of ecosystem services in the natural environment.
“The benefits provided by plants and microbes are not directly purchased from a shelf or traded in the marketplace,” says Dupont, whose work will focus on ecosystem services from plants that filter and clean water.
The Professor of Economics is a member of a Canada-wide research team that is studying how researchers, industry partners and communities can work together to enhance the performance of constructed wetlands.
These enriched wetlands provide an enabling environment for plants and microbes with particular genes that treat wastewater generated by the oil sands industry.
Dupont is leading a subsection of the research that will examine the Canadian public’s perspectives on the use of these genomic methods in the context of oil sands reclamation.
“I’m really looking forward to working on this project,” says Dupont. “I see it as a really great opportunity to inform the general public about the role ecosystem services play and how important it is to better understand the values provided by these services.”
The project, titled “Application of Genomics to Enhance Wetland Treatment Systems for Remediation of Processed Water in Northern Environments,” is being led by Douglas Muench at the University of Calgary and Christine Martineau at Natural Resources Canada and is supported by a grant from Genome Canada.
A natural way to clean up large volumes of wastewater is through a constructed wetland treatment system, which uses vegetation, soils and microbes to remove dissolved compounds and trace metals.
The national research team is using genomic approaches to study how plants and microbes can be harnessed to biodegrade toxic organic compounds such as naphthenic acids.
“The proposed applied research will provide insight on the mechanisms of plant-microbe interactions to facilitate the development of a robust, ‘green’ and cost-effective system for the remediation of OSPW” (oil sands process-affected water), says the team.
The surface mining of oil sands is a large industry in the Athabasca region of northern Alberta. While no release is currently allowed, future legislation will require operators to restore the water before release and to reclaim the landscape.
A section of the team, led by Lori Bradford at the University of Saskatchewan, is studying the social sciences aspect of the research to explore legal, social and economic gaps in knowledge and practice.
“With a window opening for people to have their say in the technologies we use to reclaim landscapes, and the regulations used to monitor and measure that reclamation, the time for this project is now,” says Bradford.
“We are working to use many different ‘languages’ in this work: the language of economics and, importantly, art, are being put to use by our team,” she says.
Dupont says social benefits from a constructed wetland treatment system that safely and effectively treats oil sands process-affected water have several important benefits.
These include potential cost savings from use of natural processes to sustainably deal with industrial effluents, as well as the potential for a shorter time period needed to achieve good water quality.
Dupont’s previous research has found that most Canadians support green measures and value clean water, health and a protected natural environment.
But in the case of using genomic tools to enhance bioremediation efficacy, the public may not be familiar with genomic-based technologies, she says.
“The Canada-wide survey that I’ll be implementing will to try to get a sense of what are people’s perspectives,” says Dupont. “Do they understand what the process is and how important is it to them to use genomic research to enhance this green technology?”
She says she expects the survey results will provide insight into the general public’s knowledge level on genomic-based reclamation methods and where educational campaigns might be needed to increase understanding of ecosystem services.
Dupont will also be working with Indigenous communities and partners to gather Indigenous perspectives.