I was lying in bed still half asleep one Saturday morning when I heard something on CBC Radio that blew my socks off, or would have if I had been wearing socks. An Environment Canada Study, which was conducted by Federal Researchers, with a new tool that could ‘fingerprint’ tailings effluent back to a source pond, found that a single tailings pond was leaking 6.5 million liters a day, and some of this toxic run off was making its way into the Athabasca River. The industry position on Tailings Ponds is that the ponds are being carefully monitored for leaks, implying that there are none. I actually had to google several news sources to convince myself that number, 6.5 million liters a day leaking from one tailings pond, was real. The Athabasca River flows north from Fort McMurray through some First Nations settlements, if it flowed south into Edmonton’s drinking water, this probably would have been a bigger story. The Alberta Government’s position on the study is that it requires further study, which is ‘industry speak’ for the paper has been buried, at least for now.
The oil sands tailings ponds cover 176 square miles in Alberta where Boreal Forests once stood. The tailings ponds are created as a by-product of the process of separating Bitumen, from the sand it occurs in. There is water in the form of steam, as well as acids, and solvents involved in the process, the bitumen containing oil comes out one side, and everything else goes into the tailings ponds. The tailings ponds contain water, sand, and microscopic clay, but they also contain heavy metals, corrosive acids, and toxic chemicals some of which are known carcinogens. The ponds often have a thin layer of residual oil on top which is deadly to waterfowl, and while deterrents are in place, these do not always work, in part because the tailings pond area the birds have to fly over is so vast.
Managing these Tailings Ponds in an environmental manner is not easy, and for many decades, the problem was simply not dealt with. However with growing public anger changes are slowly beginning to occur. The problem the industry says is removing the water from the microscopic clay which holds the moisture in a yogurt like consistency. Through valiant effort one, (yes one) large tailings pond which dates back to the 1960’s has been successfully dried out, covered in topsoil, and planted with 600,000 trees and shrubs native to the local Boreal forest. This is a good news story, wildlife will move back into the area, and birds flying over will not be in danger if they land. But this is not pristine wilderness, the dried up tailings are still there, definitely in a much more inert form, but they have not been removed. The liners designed to contain the tailings are not going to improve with age. This 176 square mile and growing stretch of tailings ponds, will in perpetuity, pose a threat to the regions drinking water, and to the Athabasca River.