Slowly walking through what appears to be a field of green grass the soil scientist and farmer come to a stop. The soil specialist bends down and pushes the grass aside to expose its roots. The farmer leans in for a closer look. Continuing their discussion the soil specialist stands upright and the pair continues the walk. The farmer seems satisfied the grass growing where an oil well once stood will fit in nicely with the surrounding area. The scientist smiles knowing his hard work has paid off.
"If you can ensure soil characteristics are similar to off-site, you shouldn't have a problem with vegetation," says Tony, a soil scientist who works as a reclamation specialist. "You can approach a job in 101 different ways and we get to see things through to the end of the day, change it from a sticky oil well and make it a nice green pasture the farmer's happy with."
Bringing the land back so it's once again clean and green comes after much work. That work includes being in the field collecting soil, water and vegetation samples from the site and surrounding area while also going through reams of data in the office. This data could include aerial photos of the area, information on how the well was operated, what was produced and a host of technical data about soil and water, for example. At the end of a project, with his time split evenly between field and office work, all this data and information on how the physical transformation of the land was completed will be included in a report to the client.
"It's fairly fast-paced," the professional agrologist said of what he likes most of the work. "(And) it's never the same. We try and come up with unique solutions to unique problems. We have a lot of latitude to explore. (And) we have timelines to meet. In reclamation, for sure we're on the same timeline as a farmer. We only have 100 to 130 frost-free days a year. It makes for a busy field (summer) season."
Unlike others involved with examining soil, Tony stressed his role is not as "hard-core" scientific. "You have to have a strong science background but at the same time we're not scientists, we're practitioners. We can't study things to the nth degree. We only have so much time and money." Working for a consulting company, Tony has to carefully document how much time he spends on each project. This allows his company to bill the client for services performed. Tony said this necessary preoccupation with accounting for every minute is one part of the work he likes least.
It's work, however, he wasn't certain he would ever do. Entering university in the general science program, Tony soon became interested in the environmental conservation science classes he took. "I enjoyed some of my courses related to the Alberta landscape, the soils and relationships... the things you could experience in your own back yard. It sort of drew me in." After graduating he worked for another consulting company, on his own for two years, and then joined a local reclamation firm about two years ago. He also became a member of the provincial institute of agrology and articled under a mentor for two years, recently earning the title professional agrologist.
With seven years in the industry Tony has good insight into what makes a effective reclamation specialist. "You have to be well organized and have an interest in the natural world outside. And that gets into plants, animals, rock... whatever. You have to be (able) to adjust at short notice to the different needs of a client and you have to be able to take criticism. A lot of what we do is written. Technical writing is a skill that takes a bit of time to acquire. You have to take criticism to become a better technical writer."
Tony said many companies use a sliding pay scale that includes pay raises after a specific number of years experience. His advice for anyone considering this career: "You just sort of have to understand that you can love and hate your job at the same time. You're not going to love it all. Enjoy it when the opportunity presents itself."