Landform Design

At McKenna Geotechnical, we appreciate the competing demands and unavoidable constraints facing landform design. Mine reclamation is about more than regrading and revegetating. Meeting corporate objectives and government regulations now requires an integrated design approach, ideally at the watershed scale, employing a multidisciplinary team, along with detailed schedules that span decades.

While most mine sites are destined to be used for recreation or conservation, others can be so difficult to restore that stability and a modest environmental impact are all that can be expected from reclamation. All are valid land uses, usually selected by the mine operator with input from stakeholders and regulators. We help navigate that process and guide the reclamation process to a successful conclusion.

In the late 1990s, Gord undertook research that laid the groundwork for much of what we now consider formal watershed design protocols. His approach has been embraced by Syncrude, Suncor, and Teck Coal, among other industry leaders. He is responsible for the investigation, design, construction, and reclamation of six commercial-scale watershed reclamation projects in Canada covering a total of 650 hectares. Another 2,000 ha are under construction, and closure at another four sites totaling 40,000 ha is under way using his designs.

McKenna Geotechnical embraces teamwork, which is essential to successful landform design. No one specialist can possibly embody all the expertise required. The range of knowledge required is vast, encompassing mine planning, geotechnical design, traditional knowledge, surface water, groundwater, soils, vegetation, and wildlife to name a few of the critical specialties. Founder Gord McKenna, over the past 30 years, has developed a working familiarity with a wealth of professionals who can satisfy all of these various requirements. Gord assembles the team and gets everyone working together toward the common goal.

Sample Projects

Sample Papers

Barbour S & McKenna G. 2010. Engineering for Wetland Reclamation, Reclamation and Restoration of Boreal Peatland and Forest Ecosystems: Toward a Sustainable Future. Edmonton. March 25-27. Paper 3-6.

Cumulative Environmental Management Association (CEMA). 2005. Landscape Design Checklist, Revised RSDS Government Regulator Version. May 2005. CEMA-RWG Landscape Design Subgroup. 8p. (editor and co-author).

Cumulative Environmental Management Association (CEMA). 2012. Oil Sands End Pit Lakes Guidance Document. Fort McMurray. 494p. (chapter author, technical advisor).

Cumulative Environmental Management Association (CEMA). 2014. Guidelines for Wetland Establishment on Reclaimed Oil Sands Leases (3rd Edition). Fort McMurray. 436p. (chapter author, technical advisor).

Daly C, Atkinson J, Birkham T, Chapman D, Ciborowski J, McKenna G, O'Kane M, Price J, Rochefort L, & Russell B. 2010. Novel wetland reclamation design: The Suncor pilot fen and Wapisiw wetland. 37th Annual Aquatic Toxicity Workshop October 3-6. Toronto. Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Eaton BR, Fisher JT, McKenna GT, & Pollard J. 2014. An Ecological Framework for Wildlife Habitat Design for Oil Sands Mine Reclamation. OSRIN Report No. TR-67. Oil Sands Research and Information Network, University of Alberta. Edmonton. 83p.

Keys MJ, McKenna G, Sawatsky L, & Van Meer T. 1995. Natural analogs for sustainable reclamation landscape design at Syncrude. Environmental Management for Mining. Saskatoon

McKenna G. 2012. Sustainable mining and landform design. David C Sego Symposium. April 26-27. University of Alberta. Edmonton.

McKenna GT. 2009. Techniques for creating mining landforms with natural appearance. Tailings and Mine Waste 2009 Conference. Banff. University of Alberta Geotechnical Centre, Edmonton.

MEND. 2012. Cold Regions Cover System Design Technical Guidance Document. MEND Report 1.61.5c. Consultant's report prepared by O'Kane Consultants for Mine Environment Neutral Drainage Program. July 2012. 177p. (Technical panel member, contributor).

Pollard J, McKenna GT, Fair J, Daly C, Wytrykush C, & Clark J. 2012. Design aspects of two fen wetlands constructed for reclamation research in the Athabasca oil sands. Mine Closure 2012 Symposium. Brisbane. Australian Centre for Geomechanics. p815-829

Russell B, McKenna G, Leblanc M, Wells PS, & Anderson HB. 2010. Design and construction of the reclamation surface for the first oil sands tailings pond. Mine Closure 2010, Vina del Mar, Chile. Australia Centre for Geomechanics, Perth. 13p.

Strategic Advisory Panel on Selenium Management. 2010. The Way Forward: Strategic Plan for the Management of Selenium at Teck Coal Operations. Swanson Environmental Strategies Ltd. Calgary. 233p. (panel member, co-author).

Strategic Advisory Panel on Selenium Management. 2012. Alternative Futures: collective action to manage selenium in the Elk and McLeod Watersheds. Swanson Environmental Strategies Ltd. Calgary. 80p. (panel member, co-author).

Wytrykush C, Vitt DH, McKenna G, & Vassov R. 2012 Designing landscapes to support peatland development on soft tailings deposits: Syncrude Canada Ltd.'s Sandhill Fen Research Watershed initiative. Restoration and reclamation of boreal ecosystems: Attaining sustainable development. Cambridge University Press New York New York. p161-178.

Closure Planning

McKenna Geotechnical leads expert teams in developing mine closure plans at the landscape scale. Founder Gord McKenna has lead several breakthroughs in mine closure planning and relinquishment, including the use of formal goal-setting, design checklists, GIS tools, and assorted communication techniques. Some of Gord's breakthrough innovations have become routine in oil sands closure planning, including approaches related to project design topographical surfaces, constraint maps, regional closure planning (for multiple mines) and landscape design risk assessments. The firm's approach stresses the need to work with stakeholders, clearly define and obtain agreement on measurable goals, and work toward creating landforms that can be reclaimed reliably and efficiently. Stakeholder involvement, and consultation with First Nations, are increasingly critical elements to successful closure planning and implementation.

The long-term success of a mine depends on creating effective closure plans that are truly integrated with the long-range mine plan (ideally there is just one plan). The closure plans must be detailed enough to provide a solid basis for decision making by mine operations and mine development. They should provide a reliable basis for First Nations, regulatory agencies, and stakeholders to evaluate and provide guidance.

McKenna Geotechnical works with mines to ensure practical and realistic closure plans that are well communicated to all, and setting up the systems to help ensure they are followed and updated as needed. A well-done closure plan provides the 'boundary conditions" for the more detailed design of the 6 to 24 landforms at each mine site, streamlining this process and improving the ultimate landscape performance and acceptance of the resulting mine reclamation.

Select Papers

Abbott RM & McKenna GT. 2012. Sustainable mining now: Turning ideas and ideals into reality. Mine Closure 2012. Brisbane. Australian Centre for Geomechanics. p771-781.

Ansah-Sam M, Hachey L, McKenna G, & Mooder B. 2016. The DBM approach for setting engineering design criteria for an oil sands mine closure plan. Fifth International Oil Sands Tailings Conference, December 4-7. Lake Louise, Alberta. University of Alberta Geotechnical Group, Edmonton. 11p.

Cassie J & McKenna G. 2016. Mine closure planning, design and implementation: from hand-waving to reality. Planning for Closure 2016: First International Congress on Planning for Closure of Mining Operations. Santiago, Chile. November 20-22. Gecamin. Santiago. 9p.

Fair JM, Pollard J, & McKenna GT. 2014. Reclaimed closure landscapes: the importance and benefits of operations maintenance and monitoring. 38th BCTRCR Annual British Columbia Mine Reclamation Symposium. Sep 22-25. Prince George, BC.

McGreevy J, McKenna G, An R, & Scordo E. 2013. Regional mine closure plans – the next improvement in closure planning. Tailings and Mine Waste 2013 Conference. Banff. Nov 3-6. University of Alberta Geotechnical Centre, Edmonton.

McKee WN & McKenna GT. 1997. Closure planning. actions today to control cost and liability tomorrow. CIM District 5 Mining Conference. Fort McMurray. Canadian Institute of Mining. Paper 22.

McKenna G, An R, Scordo E, & McGreevy J. 2013. Toward effective closure planning: From progressive reclamation to sustainable mining. Tailings and Mine Waste '13. Proceedings of the Seventeenth International Conference on Tailings and Mine Waste, November 3-6, Banff. University of Alberta Geotechnical Center, Edmonton. p615-625.

McKenna G, Keys M, Van Meer T. Roy L. & Sawatsky. 2000. The impact of beaver dams on the design and construction of reclaimed mines sites. Proceedings of the 24th Annual British Columbia Mine and Reclamation Symposium, Williams Lake, BC. 2000.

McKenna G, O'Kane M, & Qualizza C. 2011. Tools for bringing mine reclamation research to commercial implementation. Tailings and Mine Waste 2011 Conference. Vancouver. Nov 6-9. 11p.

McKenna G, Scordo E, Shuttleworth D, Straker J, Purdy B, & Buchko J. 2011. Aesthetics for mine closure. Mine Closure 2011 Conference. Lake Louise, Canada. Australian Centre for Geomechanics. Perth. 1:603-612.

McKenna G, Straker J, & O'Kane M. 2016. Custodial transfer of reclaimed mines: barriers and opportunities. TRCR 40th Annual BC Mine Reclamation Symposium. Penticton, BC, Canada. Sept 2016. 12p.

McKenna G. 1996. "Concepts in lease-closure landscapes." CIM Bulletin 89:89-95.

Rains RB & McKenna GT. 1995. Fluvial geomorphology of natural rivers and creeks and its impact on lease-closure designs at Syncrude Canada Ltd. 7th Annual Canadian Dam Safety Conference. Banff. Canadian Dam Safety Association (Canadian Dam Association). p279-293.

Swanson S, Abbott R, Funk W, Kirk L, McKenna G, Ohlendorf H, & Sandy T. 2011. Building stakeholder engagement in sustainable solutions — The strategic Advisory Panel on Selenium Management. Mine Closure 2011 Symposium. Lake Louise, Canada. Australian Centre for Geomechanics. 2:189-196.

DS soft tailings

Soft Tailings

McKenna Geotechnical recognizes that the permanent sequestering of tailings poses a significant challenge to responsible mine management. Soft tailings, defined as those which require special techniques for capping, trafficability, and reclamation, often catch mines by surprise. Soft tailings can prove difficult to stabilize, cover, cap and reclaim. Often the tailings require extensive processing to be cappable and reclaimable. Each mine presents unique features and opportunities for innovative solutions based on the best available science. Our decades of experience working on a variety of mines allows us to provide our clients with a broad suite of potential solutions from which to draw.

Founder Gord McKenna has been involved in oil sands tailings research and development for over 25 years, undertaking dozens of projects ranging from bench scale through piloting, prototyping, commercialization, operation, closure and reclamation. Example projects include commercialization of the Syncrude composite tailings, commercialization of soft tailings capping and trafficability testing methods, and new reclamation techniques. Most of this work happens in the field, dealing with real-life conditions in large pilots quickly moving on to commercial scale operations. While there are many soft tailings sites worldwide, soft tailings stabilization and reclamation projects are done as one-off projects and little published guidance exists.

Gord is well positioned to help companies benefit from decades of experience from individual mine sites on the range of reclamation solutions available to enhance both the environmental and economic performance of the mine. Our decades of experience working on a variety of mines allows us to provide our clients with a broad suite of potential solutions from which to draw. The costs of stabilizing and reclaiming soft tailings in particular can run to hundreds of millions of dollars — comparable to the cost of managing tailings during ore production. This reality makes sound tailings management a critical component of closure planning.

Gord has organized several soft tailings workshops over the past two decades:

Sample Workshops

Selected Papers

BGC Engineering Inc. 2010. Oil Sands Tailings Technology Review. OSRIN Report No. TR-1. BGC Engineering Inc. Vancouver. 136p. (co-author).

BGC Engineering Inc. 2010. Review of Reclamation Options for Oil Sands Tailings Substrates. OSRIN Report No. TR-2. BGC Engineering Inc. Vancouver. 59p. (co-author).

Consortium of Tailings Management Consultants (CTMC). 2012. Oil Sands Tailings Technology Deployment Roadmap: Project Report – Volume 2, Component 1 Results. Consultants' report to Alberta Innovates – Energy and Environment Solutions. June 22, 2012. 112p. (Co-author).

Holden A, McKenna G, Fan X, & Biggar K. 2014. The potential impact of different types of tailings on water quality and quantity reporting to oil sands end pit lakes: a preliminary modeling exercise. International Oil Sands Tailings Conference (IOSTC 2014). December 7-10. Lake Louise, Canada. University of Alberta Geotechnical Centre. Edmonton.

Jakubick AT & McKenna GT. 2001. Stabilization of soft tailings: practice and experience. Eighth International Conference on Radioactive Waste Management and Environmental Management (ICEM'01). Brugge Belgium. American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

Jakubick AT, McKenna GT, & Robertson AM. 2003. Stabilisation of tailings deposits: international experience. Sudbury 2003. Mining and the Environment. Sudbury.

Liu Y & McKenna G. 1999. Applications of wickdrains in Syncrude composite tailings. 52nd Canadian Geotechnical Conference, Regina. Canadian Geotechnical Society.

McKenna G & Cullen V. 2008. Landscape design for soft tailings deposit. Tailings and Mine Waste 08 Conference. Vail, Colorado.

McKenna G, Dawson R, Hyndman A, LeSueur P & Sobkowicz J. 2012. The Oil Sands Tailings Roadmap and Action Plan — Oil Sands Tailings State of Practice Overview. International Oil Sands Tailings Symposium, Edmonton. University of Alberta Geotechnical Centre, Edmonton

McKenna G, Mann V, Fisseha B, Beier N, & Olmedo N. 2016. The geotechnical vane strength of soft tailings compared to soft foods. Fifth International Oil Sands Tailings Conference, December 4-7. Lake Louise, Alberta. University of Alberta Geotechnical Group, Edmonton. 11p.

McKenna G, Mann V, Fisseha B, Beier N, & Olmedo N. in press. "This tailings has the consistency of chocolate pudding: a formal comparison of the geotechnical vane shear strength of food and soft tailings." Geotechnical News.

McKenna G, Mooder B, Burton B, & Jamieson A. 2016. Shear strength and density of oil sands fine tailings for reclamation to a boreal forest landscape. IOSTC International Oil Sands Tailings Conference. Lake Louise. Dec 4 to 7. University of Alberta Geotechnical Group. Edmonton.    


Mining Geotechnique

McKenna Geotechnical is intimately familiar with each phase of waste management and associated closure planning. Mines generate as much as 10 time more waste than ore, requiring the bulk of mine's workforce to be tasked primarily with managing waste. It's safe to say 90% of mine engineers and other specialists spend most of their time dealing with mine waste (overburden, tailings, and water). Dumps, dams, tailings ponds, and water management systems must be designed and monitored. Infrastructure to support waste management must be built. Closure plans must be drawn up. And stakeholders affecting by any of those aspects demand consultation; strong mines demand collaboration.

McKenna Geotechnical provides unmatched experience with oil sands geotechnical challenges, from pit walls stabilization and foundation integrity, to tailings research and development, closure planning, and reclamation. Exploitation of the oil sands has required the development of extraction techniques that challenged both the mining and petroleum industries. Those challenges continue to arise as attention turns to reclamation of mature mines. Building on muskeg foundations, designing spillways on weak slopes, constructing retaining walls in winter, and predicting aquifer pressure are just a few examples in a long list. We come to every project equipped with the knowledge and experience to apply lessons learned at other mines to the oil sands. The firm is also applying this expertise at coal and metal mines internationally.

Review Boards and Expert Panels

McKenna Geotechnical founder Gord McKenna has participated in several review panels, guiding operations, helping to ensure dam safety, and adopting landform design for large dams and dumps. He also provides advice on research and development programs. Belonging to such panels has given Gord a chance to collaborate with experts from many other disciplines.

Sample Boards and Panels

Selected Papers
Kupper AG, Hurndall B, Morgenstern N, Sobkowicz J, Abeda W, Baldwin G, Cameron R, Eenkooren N, Grapel C, Martens S, McKenna G, Mihiretu Y, Mimura W, Parson K, Paz S, Petersen T, Small A, Tan S, Wog K, & Yazdanpanah S. 2013. De-licensing oil sands tailings dams – when is a dam no longer a dam? Tailings and Mine Waste '13. Seventeenth International Conference on Tailings and Mine Waste November 3-6, Banff. University of Alberta Geotechnical Centre. Edmonton.

McKenna G & Lewko R. 1995. 44 blockslides in the Athabasca Oil Sands. 48th Canadian Geotechnical Society Conference. Sep 25-27. Vancouver. p909-916.

McKenna G, Biggar K, Win SMK, Journault J, Eaton T, Sego D, & Morgenstern N. 2010. Oil sands tailings sand hydraulic conductivity. 2nd International Oil Sands Tailings Conference. December 5-8. University of Alberta Geotechnical Centre. Edmonton p21-29.

McKenna G, Livingstone G, & Lord T. 1994. "Advances in slope-monitoring instrumentation at Syncrude Canada Ltd." Geotechnical News 12:66-69.

McKenna G. 1991. Grouted-in installation of piezometers in boreholes. 44th Canadian Geotechnical Society Conference. Calgary. Canadian Geotechnical Society. Paper 55. 12p.
McKenna G. 1995. Advances in slope-monitoring instrumentation at Syncrude Canada Ltd — a follow up. Geotechnical News v13.42-44.

McKenna G. 1995. "Grouted-in installation of piezometers in boreholes." Canadian Geotechnical Journal. 32:355-363.

McKenna G. 1996. "Concepts in lease-closure landscapes." CIM Bulletin 89:89-95.

McKenna G. 1996. "Planning geotechnical tests and investigations for analysis and presentation — Part 1." Geotechnical News 14:37-45.

McKenna G. 1997. "Injecting science into geotechnical research field programs." Geotechnical News. 15:49-56.

McKenna G. 1998. "Celebrating 25 Years. Syncrude's Geotechnical Review Board." Geotechnical News. 16:34-41.

McKenna G. 2006. "Rules of thumb for geotechnical instrumentation costs." Geotechnical News.

Oil Sands Tailings Dam Committee. 2014. De-licensing of oil sands tailings dams. Technical guidance document. March 2014.Oil Sands Research and Information Network (OSRIN). University of Alberta, Edmonton. 46p. (Committee member, co-author).


As adjunct professor at the University of Alberta's Department of Renewable Resources, Gord McKenna has the honour and privilege of helping shape the next generation of geotechnical engineers. He also lectures each year at the University of British Columbia and the B.C. Institute of Technology and offers short courses to corporations, organizations and educational institutions on request. Gord has had the opportunity to teach undergraduates, graduate students, professors, practitioners, regulators, stakeholders, and members of First Nations communities. The unifying theme in his lectures is the fostering of an appreciation for design strategies that meet the needs of both society and industry.

Over his three decades in the business, Gord has come to value the benefits of mentorships, and has overseen the early careers of dozens of young engineers as they begin their career. All members of the McKenna Geotechnical team are encouraged to develop such relationships as part of their responsibility to an industry with an ever-evolving scientific foundation. Gord publishes regularly in conferences and journals. A list of his publications over the last 30 years is available here.

Sample Courses

McKenna Geotechnical specializes in landform design, closure planning, soft tailings, mining geotechnique and teaching. We possess decades of experience in mine operations and provide professional consulting expertise to mines in Canada and around the world.

We offer short courses for students and practitioners on closure planning, landform design, and sustainable mining. These courses provide registrants with the tools and case histories they need to complete their own designs and plans.
McKenna Geotechnical Inc.
5223 Laurel Drive
Delta, BC, Canada V4K 4S4


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