The Alberta Tar Sands: what a highly anticipated, highly acclaimed oil and gas recovery project it was at the time. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief and thought our energy woes were over.
However, just recently, along with other information that I will reveal later, it has been disclosed that 4 billion litres of toxic leakage escapes from the tailings ponds at the tar sands project into the groundwater every year. It is further estimated that this groundwater contamination could grow by five-fold within one decade: just 10years. The report that used industry data to arrive this conservative estimate of tailings pond leakage is 11 Million Litres a Day: The Tar Sands’ Leaking Legacy.
“This massive leakage from toxic tailings ponds are yet another reason why tar sands oil is dirty oil,” said Matt Price, Program Manager, Environmental Defense.
Tailings ponds are known to contain dozens of toxic contaminants like heavy metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) [As a pollutant, they are of concern because some compounds have been identified as carcinogenic, mutagenic, and teratogenic] and naphthenic acids. Naphthenic acids in particular break down very slowly posing a long-term threat to the groundwater of the region.
Tailings consist of ground rock and process effluents (all the waste) that are generated in a mine processing plant. Mechanical and chemical processes are used to extract the desired product from the run of the mine ore. After extracting what they want from the ore everything else is diverted into a waste stream known as tailings. This process of product extraction is never 100% efficient; nor, is it possible (or economically desirable) to reclaim all reusable and expended processing reagents and chemicals. The unrecoverable and uneconomic metals, minerals, chemicals, organics and process water are discharged, normally as slurry, to a final storage area commonly known as a Tailings Management Facility (TMF) or Tailings Storage Facility (TSF).
Tailing ponds are one method of storing tailings. They are areas where the refuse material is ponded to allow the settlement of solid particles from the water it is carried in. There is minimal benefit to capturing the fine tailings in the ponded water as it minimizes them being gathered up and spread by the wind.
Tailings ponds are often dangerous because the wastes deposited into the ponds are often very toxic, corrosive or both, to human and animal life. At least 90% of the fresh water used in the oil sands ends up in tailing ponds so toxic that propane cannons are used to keep ducks from landing. Tailings are sometimes mixed with other materials such as cement and bentonite to form a thicker slurry that slows the release of impacted water to the environment.
The tailings ponds for the tar sands sits upriver from the Peace-Athabasca Delta, one of the world’s largest inland freshwater deltas and home to Fort Chipewyan where residents already have serious concerns about pollution and their health.
The tiny hamlet of Fort Chipewyan (pop. 1200) gets all their water from the Athabasca River. A generation ago, the lake the river runs into was so clear people drank directly from the lake without treating the water in any way. They are the only community in the area who receive their public drinking water from the river.
Their usually peaceful existences have been turned upside down now Fort Chipewyan has been identified as a cancer cluster – possible living proof – that the escaping toxic leakage from the tailings ponds is having a dramatic effect on the health of the persons living downstream from the tar sands.
Five cases of an extremely rare bile duct cancer have been found in this hamlet. Statistically, a city should be the size of Halifax (approx. 386,000) to have this many rare cancers. Did I mention they also have cases of leukemia, lymphoma, colon cancer, cervical cancer, lupus and Graves’ disease? Kind of overwhelming for a hamlet of 1200 people.
What makes this even more interesting is that none of the other communities in the area are experiencing this kind of health apocalypse; but, then none of the other communities draw their water from the Athabasca River either. This only reinforces suspicions that the waste water leaking from upstream is the cause of the problem.
Tailings ponds are built on bare ground with walls made out of earthen materials. As we all know, these kinds of structures tend to leak. The amount leaked may not be much in comparison to the total volume treated in the tanks; but, it still can be a significant amount.
Companies deploy measures to capture some of the leakage from the ponds; but, these measures are imperfect. Company applications for new projects admit that leakage is lost to the groundwater; so, it seems to have become an accepted part of doing business. It is my opinion that when applications or proposals such as this are put forward, things like leakage are usually not only downplayed, they are underestimated. I, therefore, wonder how accurate the report “11 Million Litres a Day: The Tar Sands’ Leaking Legacy” is since it was these applications that were used to arrive at the overall leakage rate. I suspect the numbers might be a little bit low.
Both Alberta and federal legislation prohibits the discharge of toxic materials into the environment; but, tailings ponds leakage is sanctioned by the Alberta permitting process. The report calls on the Canadian government to enforce the federal Fisheries Act to end the leakage problem, given a pattern of inaction by Alberta.
“The destruction in the tar sands will not stop until the federal government steps in to enforce its environmental laws,” said Price. “Canadians should not have to carry the shame of being the producers of such dirty oil.”
11 Million Litres a Day: The Tar Sands’ Leaking Legacy, and the leakage calculations, can be downloaded for free on the Environmental Defense web site at www.environmentaldefence.ca.
DeSmogblog gleaned some facts from it:
-Oil sands mining is licensed to use twice the amount of fresh water that the entire city of Calgary uses in a year.-Processing the oil sands uses enough natural gas in a day to heat 3 million homes. -The toxic tailing ponds are considered one of the largest human-made structures in the world. -The ponds span 50 square kilometers and can be seen from space.-Producing a barrel of oil from the oil sands produces three times more greenhouse gas emissions than a barrel of conventional oil.
More good, good, stuff on their website: