Evolv­ing Tails

Wet­lands, forests and grass are slowly re­plac­ing oil sands tail­ings ponds in the north­ern land­scape

Alberta Oil - - OBSERVER -

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.

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