Restoring the environment in the High Arctic

April 12, 2022

How is Brandon MacKay, a project manager with leading Canadian engineering firm Englobe, making a difference in Canada’s far north? He’s leveraging Englobe’s expertise in environmental sciences, overcoming significant challenges to undo environmental damage, and restoring abandoned contaminated areas so they no longer pose a threat to the land and people of Nunavut.


The Bathurst Island and High Arctic Remediation Project targets 21 abandoned and contaminated areas originally developed by Panarctic Oils Limited between the 1960s and early 1980s. The custodian of these lands, Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Development Canada, contracted Englobe to remediate them in 2018. But with locations between 120 km and 630 km north of the nearest community, Resolute Bay, the project was as much about solving logistics challenges as it was about remediation expertise.


“It was important to get this project right,” says MacKay. “The government sees it as a form of reconciliation, to mitigate and remove the environmental hazards and contamination present on culturally-sensitive lands and to restore the land so that it’s safe for traditional land uses, such as  hunting and fishing.”


MacKay says he loves a big challenge, and this complex project met that definition. The 21 areas are spread across six Arctic islands located north of the 75th Parallel encompassing about 120,000 square kilometres. Few of the locations have a workable airstrip and traditionally, work would have been limited to a short summer before fog and blizzards set in.


In total, the project required the management of 2,500 kg of contaminated soil, 45,000 litres of fuel, asbestos, compressed gas and other waste material.


“I believe we were the right team for the job, because of Englobe’s decades of environmental experience in remote sites,” MacKay says. “We also pride ourselves on prioritizing relationships with the local community, sharing economic benefits, hiring local sub-contractors and providing skills transfers to local residents we hire. During this project, we added $1 million to the local economy.”


Among others, Englobe partnered with Inuit firm Sila Remediation, Inuit sub-contractors and workers from Resolute to take on the project. Work began with thorough research into how the facilities had previously been accessed, how supply chains could be simplified, how the work could be completed safely, which aircraft could get the job done and how to get the most work done within a short time frame.


“We weren’t able to easily ship excavators, so a lot of the work involved careful and patient removal of the contaminated soil using hand shovels,” says MacKay.


While helicopters can provide access year-round, they don’t have the payload capacity to make the removal of large quantities of contaminated materials efficient. On the other hand, winged aircraft can only land on airstrips in summer and frozen surfaces in winter.


“We proposed to the client that we could use a helicopter during the summer and then extend the working season into winter by utilizing the larger cargo capacity of Twin Otter aircraft, equipped with skis, to pick up the material we’d removed and excavated,” says MacKay. “This pivot significantly accelerated the schedule.”


Manual soil removal was shifted to early winter, and the Englobe team approached a contractor in Whitehorse to devise high-density plastic sledges that wouldn’t become brittle in cold temperatures. This allowed the team to efficiently move fuel barrels to the Twin Otters over the snow crust. The material was then transported to an Arctic sealift and delivered to an environmental treatment and disposal site.


Englobe then constructed an engineered cover to encapsulate the remaining contaminated soil that could not be removed. Using local material significantly reduced haul times that would have been required for new construction material. The project was substantially completed last summer.


For MacKay, however, the highlight of the project occurred before completion, moments after it became clear that the Twin Otter strategy was going to pay big dividends.


“It was a beautifully sunny day and I just looked over the Arctic Ocean with a sense of pride,” he says.


MacKay notes that solving the challenges of projects such as these is all the more satisfying because Englobe encourages its employees to truly care about the impact they make to communities and empowers them to be intrapreneurs, building on a hard-wired desire to improve the world.


“I can’t think of a better job,” he says. “I get to travel to remote regions of Canada, experience different cultures, help people to develop new job skills, and take responsibility for large-scale projects that are making a difference to the environment and improving people’s lives.”


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This story was created by Content Works, Postmedia’s commercial content studio, on behalf of Englobe, and published in the National Post.

Englobe is one of Canada’s premier firms specializing in professional engineering services, environmental sciences, and soil and biomass treatment.