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Oil Sands Tailings Ponds in Canada

Canada: Oil Sands Tailings Ponds

Canada’s Alberta’s oil sands are one of the largest crude oil deposits on the planet.1 Oil sands are a mixture of sand, water and bitumen – a heavy oil too viscous to flow on its own.2 A water-intensive extraction process is required to separate the bitumen from sand and clay.3 Oil sands tailings ponds are a by-product of this production method.4

Inclusive of their structures, Albertan tailings ponds now cover more than 220 square kilometres.5 They are controversial because they are highly toxic and are leaking into the surrounding soil.6

What are oil sands tailings ponds?

Oil sands tailings ponds are man-made dam and dyke facilities for storing tailings material.7 In Alberta, each barrel of oil produced typically requires nine barrels of water.8 About 80 per cent of this water is recycled back into the Athabasca River.9 The remaining 20 per cent of water contains a mix of water, sand, silt, clay, unrecovered hydrocarbons and other contaminants.10 This waste product is poured into tailings ponds.

How large are these tailings ponds?

As of 2018, these ponds collectively contained 1.25 trillion litres.11 That’s equivalent to sufficient drinking water for one million people for 1,700 years.12 One such pond – the Mildred Lake Settling Basin – is the world’s largest dam by volume of construction material.13 These ponds continue to grow every day. It can take centuries for part of the mix, known as fine fluid tailings, to settle to the bottom of the water.14

The industry has been promising a solution to the issue since the 1960s.15 However, these tailings ponds continue to represent a bleak scar on the landscape and a serious environmental challenge to clean and restore the area.

Are tailings ponds an environmental threat?

Alberta’s oil sands tailings ponds pose a severe threat to local wildlife. They contain harmful chemicals, such as ammonia, mercury and naphthenic acids.16 This makes the water containing these chemicals toxic.17 Even worse, they have been found to be leaking.18

There is evidence that tailings fluids contaminate groundwater, raising concerns that they are harming aquatic organisms and making their way to surface water.19 It is possible the chemicals are entering the Athabasca River and consequently poisoning foods and wildlife that Indigenous Peoples rely on for subsistence.20

Canada’s federal government’s reaction

Despite their danger to local fauna and flora, Canada’s federal government has never brought a charge against an oil sands company for leaking tailings fluid.21 This is regardless of indications that the industry and government have both known about these leaks since 1973.22 Debate over whether contaminants detected in groundwater are anthropogenic or natural is one reason for the lack of charges.23

How much would Canada’s tailings ponds cost to recover?

The estimated cost to reclaim oil sands mines in Alberta is CAD $44.5 billion.24 Most of this money would be needed to clean up the tailings ponds.25 A further CAD $6.8 billion is required for land reclamation and additional costs for water treatment and ongoing monitoring and maintenance.26

It should be the oil industry’s responsibility to foot the bill, as they caused the damage. However, without a clear pathway to ensure they internalise this increasing liability, Albertan taxpayers could ultimately pay the majority of the costs.27 It remains to be seen when serious efforts will be made to reclaim these enormous toxic ponds for the sake of the environment.

Canada Oil Sands Tailings Ponds infographic

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Sources

  1. CAPP. (n.d.). What Are the Oil Sands | Canada’s Oil Sands Facts & Information. [online] Available at: https://www.capp.ca/oil/what-are-the-oil-sands/#:~:text=Oil%20sands%20are%20a%20mixture [Accessed 15 Feb. 2021].
  2. CAPP. (n.d.). What Are the Oil Sands | Canada’s Oil Sands Facts & Information. [online] Available at: https://www.capp.ca/oil/what-are-the-oil-sands/#:~:text=Oil%20sands%20are%20a%20mixture [Accessed 15 Feb. 2021].
  3. CAPP. (2019). What Are Tailings Ponds? | Environmental Impact | Alberta Oil Sands. [online] Available at: https://www.capp.ca/explore/tailings-ponds/.
  4. CAPP. (2019). What Are Tailings Ponds? | Environmental Impact | Alberta Oil Sands. [online] Available at: https://www.capp.ca/explore/tailings-ponds/.
  5. Energyeducation.ca. (2018). Oil sands tailings ponds – Energy Education. [online] Available at: https://energyeducation.ca/encyclopedia/Oil_sands_tailings_ponds.
  6. Energyeducation.ca. (2018). Oil sands tailings ponds – Energy Education. [online] Available at: https://energyeducation.ca/encyclopedia/Oil_sands_tailings_ponds.
  7. CAPP. (n.d.). What Are the Oil Sands | Canada’s Oil Sands Facts & Information. [online] Available at: https://www.capp.ca/oil/what-are-the-oil-sands/#:~:text=Oil%20sands%20are%20a%20mixture [Accessed 15 Feb. 2021].
  8. Oil Sands Magazine. (n.d.). Water Usage. [online] Available at: https://www.oilsandsmagazine.com/technical/environment/water-usage#:~:text=Oil%20sands%20mining%20facilities%20are [Accessed 15 Feb. 2021].
  9. CAPP. (n.d.). What Are the Oil Sands | Canada’s Oil Sands Facts & Information. [online] Available at: https://www.capp.ca/oil/what-are-the-oil-sands/#:~:text=Oil%20sands%20are%20a%20mixture [Accessed 15 Feb. 2021].
  10. Energyeducation.ca. (2018). Oil sands tailings ponds – Energy Education. [online] Available at: https://energyeducation.ca/encyclopedia/Oil_sands_tailings_ponds.
  11. Narwhal, T. (n.d.). It’s official: Alberta’s oilsands tailings ponds are leaking. Now what? [online] The Narwhal. Available at: https://thenarwhal.ca/tailings-ponds-leaking-alberta-oilsands/.
  12. Narwhal, T. (n.d.). It’s official: Alberta’s oilsands tailings ponds are leaking. Now what? [online] The Narwhal. Available at: https://thenarwhal.ca/tailings-ponds-leaking-alberta-oilsands/.
  13. Institute, P. (n.d.). Tailings ponds: The worst is yet to come. [online] Pembina Institute. Available at: https://www.pembina.org/blog/tailings-ponds-worst-yet-come [Accessed 15 Feb. 2021].
  14. Institute, P. (n.d.). Tailings ponds: The worst is yet to come. [online] Pembina Institute. Available at: https://www.pembina.org/blog/tailings-ponds-worst-yet-come [Accessed 15 Feb. 2021].
  15. Institute, P. (n.d.). Tailings ponds: The worst is yet to come. [online] Pembina Institute. Available at: https://www.pembina.org/blog/tailings-ponds-worst-yet-come [Accessed 15 Feb. 2021].
  16. Energyeducation.ca. (2018). Oil sands tailings ponds – Energy Education. [online] Available at: https://energyeducation.ca/encyclopedia/Oil_sands_tailings_ponds.
  17. Energyeducation.ca. (2018). Oil sands tailings ponds – Energy Education. [online] Available at: https://energyeducation.ca/encyclopedia/Oil_sands_tailings_ponds.
  18. Narwhal, T. (n.d.). It’s official: Alberta’s oilsands tailings ponds are leaking. Now what? [online] The Narwhal. Available at: https://thenarwhal.ca/tailings-ponds-leaking-alberta-oilsands/.
  19. Narwhal, T. (n.d.). It’s official: Alberta’s oilsands tailings ponds are leaking. Now what? [online] The Narwhal. Available at: https://thenarwhal.ca/tailings-ponds-leaking-alberta-oilsands/.
  20. Narwhal, T. (n.d.). It’s official: Alberta’s oilsands tailings ponds are leaking. Now what? [online] The Narwhal. Available at: https://thenarwhal.ca/tailings-ponds-leaking-alberta-oilsands/.
  21. Narwhal, T. (n.d.). It’s official: Alberta’s oilsands tailings ponds are leaking. Now what? [online] The Narwhal. Available at: https://thenarwhal.ca/tailings-ponds-leaking-alberta-oilsands/.
  22. Narwhal, T. (n.d.). It’s official: Alberta’s oilsands tailings ponds are leaking. Now what? [online] The Narwhal. Available at: https://thenarwhal.ca/tailings-ponds-leaking-alberta-oilsands/.
  23. Narwhal, T. (n.d.). It’s official: Alberta’s oilsands tailings ponds are leaking. Now what? [online] The Narwhal. Available at: https://thenarwhal.ca/tailings-ponds-leaking-alberta-oilsands/.
  24. Narwhal, T. (n.d.). It’s official: Alberta’s oilsands tailings ponds are leaking. Now what? [online] The Narwhal. Available at: https://thenarwhal.ca/tailings-ponds-leaking-alberta-oilsands/.
  25. Narwhal, T. (n.d.). It’s official: Alberta’s oilsands tailings ponds are leaking. Now what? [online] The Narwhal. Available at: https://thenarwhal.ca/tailings-ponds-leaking-alberta-oilsands/.
  26. One trillion litres of toxic waste and growing. (n.d.). [online] . Available at: https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/media-uploads/albertatailingspondsreportfinal.pdf.
  27. One trillion litres of toxic waste and growing. (n.d.). [online] . Available at: https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/media-uploads/albertatailingspondsreportfinal.pdf.
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