Wetlands, forests and grass are slowly replacing oil sands tailings ponds in the northern landscape
IN JULY, THE ALBERTA GOVERNMENT
announced a new directive requiring all tailings ponds to be ready for reclamation within 10 years of an oil sands mine ceasing operations. This is a vote of confidence in the industry’s ability to dramatically speed up reclamation from the 30- to 40-year lifespans of the earliest ponds. Technologies range from giant centrifuges that spin tailings into a cake for burial, to chemicals that recover metals and hydrocarbons from bitumen baths before they ever reach the ponds. Tailings ponds let oil sands operators recycle 80 to 95 percent of the fresh water they use, taken mainly from the Athabasca River.
The range of self-sustaining ecosystems that will replace the ponds is hopefully as diverse as those cleanup methods. Today, the herd of bison that Syncrude co-manages with the Fort McKay First Nation famously roams around a former mine site. But modern oil sands operators are working on developing a much wider range of flora and fauna and habitats, from wetlands to boreal forests and native grasses, oats, trees, shrubs and aquatic life.
Industry is legally obligated to reclaim all disturbed land to a productive state and return it to the Alberta government to receive a reclamation certificate. Oil sands operators have already invested $1.2 billion in tailings reduction technology. Since Canada’s first oil sands mine opened in 1967, oil sands operations have disturbed about 767 square kilometers of land, according to Alberta Energy, of which about 10 percent is now being actively reclaimed.