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

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.

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


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


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 the tools and case histories registrants need to complete their own designs and plans.
McKenna Geotechnical Inc.
5223 Laurel Drive
Delta, BC, V4K 4S4 Canada

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