A childhood fascination with microscopic life has spawned a unique career for Susan Kaminskyj: deploying oil-eating microbes to eat up toxic dirt.

Kaminskyj, a biology professor at the University of Saskatchewan, is the co-founder of GreenSTEM Technology Corp., a company that specializes in bioremediation. But the application she’s best-known for—a fungus that helps plants grow on the heaps of contaminated soil produced by oil sands mining—hasn’t won acceptance from the petroleum industry.

As a result, Kaminskyj’s efforts aren’t concentrated in the oil sands of northern Alberta—arguably Canada’s most infamous industrial landscape—but to the west in northeastern British Columbia.

“Although we know how to run—to race—we’re still taking baby steps,” Kaminskyj said of GreenSTEM.

Part of the industry’s hesitancy may be because bioremediation has been held on a pedestal before, only to disappoint its early adopters, said Bruce Rittmann, director of the Biodesign Swette Centre for Environmental Biotechnology at Arizona State University.

The discovery of the underlying science—that microbes like bacteria or fungi could play a role in treating pollutants—created sky-high expectations in the 1980s that later fell to earth after the complexity and costs of the concept became clearer, he said.

The reality today is somewhere in the middle, with fairly wide use of bioremediation among environmental engineering firms but a lack of public or private funds to take it further, he said.

“Once you’ve made a big mess of things like this, it’s really expensive to clean up,” Rittmann said.

Renewed Approach

Kaminskyj and her team are hoping a renewed approach can win over some skeptics.

The advantage of GreenSTEM and the current batch of bioremediation companies is the amount of data they have and their ability to create a site-specific recipe of microbes, said Tim Repas, an environmental scientist who is co-owner of GreenSTEM in British Columbia.

GreenSTEM either works with or is performing research on around 30 different species it can deploy right now, Repas said. One batch of microbes, which are inserted into the ground around a contaminated area, usually includes up to five species, he said.

The focus today is on hydrocarbons, but the company is making headway with sulfolane and diisopropylamine—two very tough-to-remove groups of chemicals often found in a plume underneath natural gas operations, said Repas, who describes Kaminskyj as “fiercely persistent.”

‘Cleanup Was So Fast’

The process has won adherents. Among them is Tim Schilds, a semi-retired chartered accountant from Dawson Creek, who estimates oil-eating microbes cost him roughly half the price of digging up contaminated soil from beneath his father’s Ford dealership.

“The cleanup was so fast and the results were so good—and without all of the digging up, which I think just moves the issue around and causes a lot more problems,” Schilds said.

Kaminskyj holds out hope that her company can work in the oil sands, which has thousands of square kilometers of waste rock that she said must one day be returned to forest land.

A breakthrough in addressing pollution in the oil sands—a petroleum source that resembles asphalt—could one day provide a path forward for oil companies and the public, Kaminskyj said.

“We want to regrow the tree of life on places where nothing grows at all,” she said.

Passion Began Early

Kaminskyj’s passion for microscopic life began young, growing up in 1960s suburban Toronto.

At eight years old, she collected pond water from a stream across the street which her mother quickly threw out. But she successfully hid collections of fungi she had gathered in a drawer.

After reading about fish living beneath Antarctic ice caps, she became enthralled by creatures that thrive in harsh environments.

“If that isn’t interesting, then there’s a problem,” she said.

But a successful rise through the academic world—which eventually took her to western Canada—didn’t satisfy her.

Her research would make no difference in a grandchild’s lifetime, let alone her own, she thought, so she changed her focus in the early 2000s and sought research that could lead to immediate uses.

Dandelion

A plucky dandelion would eventually provide that opportunity. A friend called her and told her about the plant, which had been found growing in a pile of coarse soil produced by oil sands mining.

Tailings are one of toughest environmental challenges for oil sands production, which is a major economic engine in Canada and a critical energy source for the U.S. Tailing ponds, which are filled with fluid waste, reached 1.18 trillion liters in 2015, according to the Alberta think-tank the Pembina Institute.

After examining the dandelion, Kaminskyj discovered a fungi—a strain of a species called Trichoderma harzianum that she named TSTh20-1—that had a symbiotic relationship with the plant.

TSTh20-1 was creating nutrients in the tailings for the dandelion while also reducing petrochemical amounts in the soil, which had been drained of nutrients by the mining process.

The discovery held promise because plant growth could decrease erosion and create more natural biological conditions within coarse tailings.

Kaminskyj and her students grew tomato plants, which require a lot of water, in a sample of coarse tailings to demonstrate the power of TSTh20-1. That research was published in October 2017.

Trouble Getting Started

But getting a second sample or a pilot started in the oil sands has been tough, according to Kaminskyj, who blames overconfidence in larger, engineering-based solutions for some of the resistance.

Major oil sands companies have pooled resources into an organization named Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) to solve environmental problems like tailings for the entire sector, but the group didn’t immediately respond to Bloomberg Environment’s request for comment.

Edmonton-based Suncor Energy, one of the largest oil sands companies, has invested in startup Vancouver-based Metabolik Technologies, which is seeking to use bioremediation to reduce concentrations of toxic naphthenic acids in tailing ponds, according to the company’s 2018 sustainability report.

Kaminskyj dreams of one day tackling all zenobiotic products—substances not found in life, including pesticides.

In the nearer-term, Repas is counting on word of GreenSTEM’s success spreading in northern British Columbia and a chance to compile for data on oil sands applications to get a break in neighboring Alberta.

“The more they see it, eventually somebody is going to give it a try,” he said.