Sunday, January 3, 2021

It’s official: Alberta’s oilsands tailings ponds are leaking. Now what?

A years-long international investigation has found ‘scientifically valid evidence’ the massive pits that store toxic waste in the oilsands are leaking, leaving Albertans wondering who’s going to clean them up

There are more than a trillion litres of toxic oilsands waste stored in tailings ponds near Alberta’s Athabasca River — and they’re leaking.
Not only that, the Commission for Environmental Cooperation report noted there is evidence tailings fluids “may circumvent [containment] systems and contaminate aquifers” and end up in the groundwater.
“It’s making its way to the groundwater, so is it making its way to our surface water? Is it making its way to the foods and wildlife that we rely on for subsistence purposes, our traditional foods? Are we consuming it?”

The answers to these questions are largely unknown, which is a big part of the problem.
Minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada Jonathan Wilkinson ... noted an additional $46 million in funding has been allocated to the federal environmental enforcement agency. But the federal government has so far been reluctant to punish oilsands companies for leaking tailings ponds.

And despite years of uncertainty, the federal government still hasn’t created regulations for the release of tailings fluids into waterways.
Tar sands tailings - Pembina Institute -
According to the Alberta Energy Regulator, “tailings are a mixture of sand, clay, water, silts, residual bitumen and other hydrocarbons, salts and trace metals.”
The total area of the tailings ponds has increased from around 25 square kilometres in 1985 to over 250 square kilometres in 2016, nearly double the size of the city of Vancouver. 

As for the amount held in the tailings ponds — well, that’d be around 1.25 trillion litres as of 2018. That’s up almost 200 billion litres from 2014. Wondering how much 1.25 trillion litres is? That’d be enough drinking water for a million people for 1,700 years.

As the factual record notes, “freshly produced [tailings fluid] is a substance acutely toxic to aquatic organisms.” 

Part of the mix, known as fine fluid tailings, remains suspended in water and can take decades to slowly settle to the bottom of a body of water.
Tailings ponds are often very close to the Athabasca River. The Commission for Environmental Cooperation report includes information from Syncrude that estimates approximately 785 million litres of tailings fluid “migrated” past collection ditches in 2017. 
Suncor pointed The Narwhal to a prepared statement, which noted “as a whole, the industry spends approximately $50 million each year on monitoring in the region, with an additional $130 million per year on site-specific monitoring. To date, these programs have not indicated an adverse impact to the Athabasca River from the oilsands industry.”
The report found indications industry and government have known tailings ponds leak since the early days of oilsands development in the Athabasca region, citing a study dating back to 1973.
How expensive will it be to clean up Alberta’s tailings ponds one day?

The Alberta Energy Regulator tracks the estimated cost of reclaiming oilsands mines, based on figures submitted by industry. Its most recent estimate of total liabilities associated with oilsands mines is $30.81 billion.

That price tag is largely related to cleaning up the tailings ponds, according to experts.

Published by Sharon J. Riley, The Narwhal's Alberta-based investigative journalist. Her essays, interviews and long-form nonfiction have also been published by The Walrus,..

We note on June 26, 2017 in "Tar Sands Tailings: Alberta's Growing Toxic Legacy" at Anthony Swift witing in the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) blog reported "Cleaning these toxic lakes will be an expensive undertaking. According to some industry estimates cleaning the tar sands tailings will cost as much as $44.5 billion and reclaiming the land will cost another $6.8 billion. To put this liability in context, these costs exceed the $41.3 billion royalties the province of Alberta has received from its tar sands operations since 1969. 

In addition, on November 1, 2018 in "Cleaning up Alberta’s oilpatch could cost $260 billion, internal documents warn:" at Mike De Souza of the National Observer, Carolyn Jarvis of Global News ,and Emma McIntosh and David Bruser of the Toronto Star  Special to Global News reported that Rob Wadsworth, vice-president of closure and liability for the Alberta Energy Regulator says a “flawed system” of industrial oversight is to blame for estimated liabilities being far higher than any liability amount made public by government and industry officials.  He called on all stakeholders to accept tougher regulations and move away from a system that now allows the largest companies to take centuries to clean up their toxic well site graveyards. Until 2018 the public had been told the liabilities have been calculated at about $58 billion, far less than Wadsworth’s estimate. The government, meanwhile, had only collected $1.6 billion in liability security from companies. The liabilities include costs that companies must assume to shut down aging and inactive oil and gas exploration wells, facilities and pipelines once they are no longer needed. Another significant part of the liability is the clean-up of toxic tailings ponds from oilsands extraction mines near Fort McMurrray. The ponds have sprawled to cover an area the size of Kelowna.  The tailing ponds are used by companies to dump the waste from the mining of bitumen. The process normally requires hot water to separate bitumen from the oily deposits of sand beneath the boreal forest in Alberta, leaving behind a yogurt-like sludge.

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