Breaking new ground in Canada's North

- Ottawa, Ontario

Innovative remediation solutions for a cleaner future

In a world run largely by fossil fuels, the cost and environmental impact of fuel leaks and oil spills can be particularly severe for remote communities. And while remediation technologies have advanced over the years, deploying these technologies in Canada's northern region remains a daunting challenge.

In 2006, the Canadian Forces Station (CFS) Alert -- the northernmost permanently inhabited settlement in the world -- suffered a serious fuel spill when a fuel line break caused 22,000 litres of diesel to leak into the surrounding soil. With approaching freezing temperatures and weather that would prove both harsh and unforgiving, an immediate and innovative clean-up solution was needed.

With a ten-year track record of working together to develop remediation solutions, the Department of National Defence (DND) quickly enlisted the help of the National Research Council (NRC) to put their collaborative research into practice.

Helping nature do the dirty work

With a diesel concentration in the soil of over 2000 parts per million (ppm) -- almost 800% above the 260 ppm allowed by federal guidelines -- NRC employed a technique known as "bioremediation" which uses naturally occurring microorganisms in the soil to break down the diesel contamination into less toxic or non-toxic substances. Although typically lengthier than other methods, the bioremediation process is less disruptive to the environment and does not require the use of additional off-site resources.

According to David Juck, Research Officer with NRC's Energy, Mining and Environment portfolio, "the process is completely natural, having to introduce only the components that are lacking. In this case, nutrients (phosphorous and nitrogen) and oxygen were mixed into the soil which significantly increased the consumption of the petroleum hydrocarbons by the microorganisms that are already present."

Six years later – and despite the harsh Arctic conditions and a treatment window of only two months each summer when the temperatures were above freezing – ingenuity coupled with patience proved to be a winning combination as the diesel concentration in the contaminated soil has dropped to an acceptable average concentration of less than 260 ppm.

Solutions that benefit the North

By applying the bioremediation solution, DND achieved its objectives and saved taxpayers millions of dollars. "Our mandate is to clean up contaminated sites and NRC's mandate is to develop technology that can be useful to Canadian industry," says Drew Craig, Head of Canadian Forces Base (CFB) 8 Wing Trenton's environmental department. "We knew that NRC could meet the challenge and provide results at a reasonable cost."

As diesel remains the main source of energy in the North, accidents that cause spills of various sizes are not uncommon and a need for ongoing remediation solutions is likely as many northern sites – mines, ports, villages and towns – face similar contamination risks. "The bioremediation technologies being developed by NRC could have definite positive and long-term impacts for the North," says Juck.

Perfecting successful bioremediation techniques for spills like the one at CFS Alert will not only help northern communities to save millions of dollars in clean-up fees, but will also protect nature and preserve their quality of life – proving that even the smallest of organisms can make a big difference.

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