Biodiversity in the Heartland

From Waste to Resource: How Nutrien’s Reforestation Initiative Supports Biodiversity at their Fort Saskatchewan Site

An innovative reclamation process piloted at Nutrien’s Fort Saskatchewan facility uses phosphogypsum – a gypsum byproduct of the phosphate fertilizer industry – to create thriving forests.

Phosphogypsum is a powdery gypsum byproduct of the phosphate fertilizer production process. Huge piles of the material, known as gypstacks, are found at phosphate sites worldwide, including Nutrien’s. While Nutrien doesn’t make phosphate fertilizer at their Fort Saskatchewan site, a previous owner of the location did – so Nutrien took responsibility for the remediation of the gypstacks.

Typically, gypstack reclamation involves contouring the piles, covering them with soil and seeding them to a grass mixture. Nutrien environmental scientist, Dr. Connie Nichol, wondered about taking reclamation one step further and planting trees instead. 

In 2005, Nichol began partnering with scientists at the University of Alberta to explore better ways to close and reclaim the gypstacks. She started by growing grass, which is standard practice – but in 2014, Tim Keddy, Wood Fibre Development Specialist with the Canadian Wood Fibre Centre, visited the site and had an idea: Why not grow trees instead? Trees are just as good at preventing erosion and seepage, require less maintenance, sequester more carbon and at the end of their life cycle, can be harvested for biomass or wood chips.

“After twenty years, we discovered the best way to reclaim these stacks was to mix in a little soil into the gypsum and create a deep seed bed and you can pretty much grow whatever you want,” described Connie.

Nutrien’s Fort Saskatchewan Nitrogen Facility has already planted 44,000 trees on 20 hectares of phosphogypsum. The trees are now thriving, some having already reached heights of more than nine metres tall. In June 2023, in partnership with Project Forest and Trees for Life, the site began expanding on this project, planting an additional 26,000 hybrid poplar trees over 17 hectares. Nutrien’s Fort Saskatchewan site expects the trees will grow from 1.5 to two meters a year. The tree plantations are not only aesthetically pleasing, they also bring environmental benefits to the area, including new wildlife habitat, a stronger local ecosystem, and carbon sequestration capturing an estimate of 1,000 tonnes a year of carbon dioxide.

Connie has also established a 22,000-square-foot garden on the site, where she grows a variety of vegetables, flowers and berries. The project has also been nominated for provincial- and federal level environmental awards, and been featured in numerous publications, including Fertilizer International magazine and the Canadian Forest Service newsletter.