One of the most difficult issues to deal with in oil sands mining is what to do with the tailing ponds left over after the oil is extracted from the sands. There is an obligation on industry to reclaim these ponds that contain water, sand, oil and some heavy metals. It seems as though the water in these ponds neither evaporates nor dissipates and it may be that the sand molecules are so fine the water just keeps “attached.” If these toxic tailing ponds ever escape into the Athabasca River, the damage to all life forms in, on and along the waterway will be devastating.
Well the Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board as started to step up on the issue of resolving the tailing pond issues. They has issued a draft directive demanding the clean-up on these waste reservoirs needs to start and the old voluntary approach for industry to respond to this obligation to reclaim these ponds to an equivalent land use to the original status is about to end.
The Discrete Choice Modeling survey Cambridge Strategies did last October/November of some 3400 Albertans showed that oil sand water usage and reclamation issues were the third and forth ranked critical value drivers for Albertans around responsible and sustainable oil sands development. The top ranked issues by far were preserving wildlife habitat and greenhouse gas capture.
New technologies have been tried to solve the waste water tailings pond problems with various degrees of success. The result of no easy solution to the tailing ponds has been a default to deferral and delay in addressing the problem. Looks like the days were reclamation delays are going to be tolerated are numbered, given the ERCB Draft Directive Backgrounder they issued today.
This directive, if acted upon, will be one of the most encouraging initiatives undertaken by the regulator in recent years. It will go a long way to dealing with the damaging international image of dirty oil from the Alberta oil sands too. Most of the reaction resulting in framing dirty oil sands has been around GHG and that is a legitimate concern. However, reclamation, water usage and wildlife habitat are very critical negative consequences of oil sands extraction too.
They are concerns that need to be added to the menu of dirty oil sands issues that need to be fix and not just manage with PR and advertising campaigns.
Today’s ERCB draft directive starts the shift in consciousness from tailing pond indifference to forcing a difference towards oil sands extraction that reduces fresh water usage, reduced stored waste water volumes and starts to get serious about tailing pond reclamation to return them to a useful landscape purpose once again.
Kudos to the ERCB for getting serious and for dealing aggressively with this potentially dangerous and devastating environmental catastrophe. It is long past due. Now we citizens have to monitor the final determination and implementation of this regulatory directive and ensure the ERCB doesn’t get knocked off the policy puck.