Building Forests from Phosphogypsum

They say sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees. Or in this case, the gypstack.

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. Considering Nutrien is one of the world's major producers of phosphate fertilizer, this also includes our facilities.

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

Since then, concentrated tree plantations have been established on about 20 hectares of phosphogypsum at Nutrien's Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta site to date, and the project has been selected as a finalist for a prestigious Alberta Emerald Award in each of the last two years. 

"It's almost a paradigm shift," says Connie Nichol, Nutrien's Research Science Specialist. “People didn't think about growing trees on here before. Now, they're like, 'This is a really good idea. Would this work in other countries?' Absolutely it would!”

Since launching the reclamation initiative, Connie quickly discovered that flowers, vegetables, berries, various shrubs, squash and pumpkins all grow very well on the gypsum stack. These growing forests also attract a variety of wildlife by creating a habitat for deer, foxes, hares and various rodents and birds. 

In 2018, a large vegetable garden was established on top of the gypsum stack. The pumpkins grown in the garden were used to raise funds for the United Way through donations, pumpkin carving contests and a pumpkin smash. 

Watch this video to see how Nutrien is turning a pile of phosphogypsum into a thriving forest that's serving as a prototype, not only for phosphogypsum reclamation, but also as part of the solution to global climate change.