Christine Daly walks down a gentle slope toward a small body of water in northeastern Alberta. Several dozen ducks and geese fly away as she approaches. Around her, the surrounding hills are flush with green. Planted there are the seedlings of more than three dozen species: black spruce, cranberries, trembling aspen.
Not quite hidden behind the green, a set of massive flare stacks pushes orange flame high into the sky - unmistakable evidence that this small oasis lies inside the heart of Canada's most controversial industrial undertakings.
This is Suncor oil sands mine, a place typically associated with massive oil workings and gaping mines. The plant life is a newcomer here, part of a years-long project that has culminated in a green space that represents the first time the industry has managed to transform its deposits of toxic effluent into firm land - an event that Suncor called "historic" for an industry searching to buff a tarnished image.
"If you were here five years ago, you would be swimming" in a tailings pond, said Ms. Daly, a wetland biologist who has helped bring nature back to this spot, once a 220-hectare tailings pond the size of 500 NFL football fields. Now, it's been planted with 600,000 trees and shrubs. A small family of deer has moved in, as have several foxes.
"The coolest we've seen is a bald eagle," Ms. Daly said.
For Suncor and the oil industry, the image of an iconic bird sweeping through what was once an operation many have labelled "dirty" is central to a new bid to convince the world that what oil and gas companies have messed up, they are also working to clean.
"Actions speak a lot louder than words. We get that loud and clear," Suncor chief executive officer Rick George said Thursday, as he stood in front of the spot once called Pond One. The company has renamed it Wapisiw Lookout, and brought hundreds of dignitaries, including Fort McMurray Mayor Melissa Blake, local first nations chiefs and Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach to the site to celebrate Thursday.
"I am damn proud to be an Albertan," Mr. Stelmach said as he stood in front of the former pond. It was a small pond - little more than 1 per cent of the area used by industry for tailings. But it carries considerable importance as an oil sands symbol. Built in 1967, when Suncor began pioneering oil sands mining, it was the industry's first effluent pond.
Cleaning it up, then, is in some measure a way for Suncor to demonstrate that it is breaking from the past. On Thursday, Mr. George pledged to accelerate the company's cleanup of effluent, and reiterated his ambition to spend $1.2-billion in the next two years on new technology that will help it accomplish that goal.
But proving to the public that the oil sands are capable of this kind of transformation has not been easy. Companies have so far spread their mining operations across 530 square kilometres. In total, industry expects to mine 4,800 square kilometres, an area nearly as large as Prince Edward Island.
So far, only 65 square kilometres have been cleaned up; of that, just over one square kilometre has been provincially certified as a self-sustaining natural environment.
As such, much depends on Suncor proving it can do this.
"This is one of those events that Suncor has to get right on behalf of everyone in the oil sands," said Debi Andrus, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Calgary.
Yet even some of the oil sands' harshest critics applauded Suncor's efforts.
"It's definitely a step in the right direction. There needs to be some credit given to Suncor," said Mike Hudema, oil sands campaigner for Greenpeace, which has engaged in numerous acts of civil disobedience to draw public attention to what it calls "dirty oil."
But Mr. Hudema argued that it would be wrong to extend credit to the rest of the industry, especially since Suncor was the only oil sands operator to pledge adherence to the strict timelines in new rules meant to speed the reclamation of effluent.
Environmental groups also worry about what remains in the ground, even once the water has been removed. Oil sands tailings contain numerous pollutants, although in low concentrations.
Suncor staff say testing has found no heavy metals in the former pond, and argue that they've only returned to this area sand and clay that was dug from it - minus, of course, most of the bitumen.
Those assurances have done little, however, to convince skeptics.
"This is one of the unanswered questions. Only time will tell what vegetation will actually truly survive in that new soil structure," said Marlo Raynolds, executive director of the Pembina Institute.
Yet he acknowledges the effort industry has made.
"I suspect that, given the attention that's going to be focused on this thing, this is going to be one of the most expensive gardens in the world," he said. "There's a lot riding on showing that this can be done."