Alberta’s dirty water hazard; Getting rid of oil-sands tailings ponds is easier said than done

Posted: May 5, 2010
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Chris Sorensen May 4, 2010, Macleans.ca--Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach marked Earth Day by talking tough about the oil sands. He called on oil companies to eliminate, within a “few years,” the murky man-made lakes, or tailings ponds, that hold contaminated water (leftover bitumen, sand and various heavy metals) from the extraction process. The vast ponds, which collectively cover about 130 square kilometres—bigger than the city of Vancouver—have become a focal point for environmentalists and are the subject of a lawsuit after 1,600 ducks died on one of Syncrude’s ponds two years ago.

But Stelmach’s vision was overshadowed the following day when Alberta’s energy regulator approved tailings-pond plans for two oil sands projects, including one that has yet to be built. While the approvals were granted in accordance with new guidelines that require ponds to be treated and drained more quickly so they can be planted with vegetation, it’s still a far cry from having no ponds whatsoever—a goal the industry says will likely require significant investments in new technologies.

One of the plans approved by the Energy Resources Conservation Board is for the yet-to-be-sanctioned Fort Hills project to be operated by Suncor, UTS Energy and Teck Resources. It includes a 322-million-cubic-metre pond that will operate for 22 years. The others relate to ponds operated by Syncrude that are scheduled to be replaced with a “trafficable surface” (hard enough to walk or drive vehicles on) between 2014 and 2037.

Meanwhile, the pressure on producers continues to ratchet up. Environmental groups recently launched a complaint under NAFTA, arguing Canada has failed to enforce anti-pollution rules for tailings ponds. But with Alberta’s energy watchdog reviewing tailings-pond plans for several other projects, it’s unlikely that the grey lakes of northern Alberta will be disappearing anytime soon.