Canada's oil sands industry is working to improve the management of tailings ponds, both in the monitoring of active tailings ponds and in developing technologies to move them into reclamation sooner.
Tailings are a mixture of water, sand, clay and residual bitumen, and are the by-product of the hot water treatment process used to separate the oil from the sand and the clay. Tailings are stored in large engineered dam and dyke systems called tailings ponds.
Tailings ponds are settling basins that enable process water to be separated and continuously recycled. Water is continuously recycled from the tailings ponds back into the extraction process, reducing use of fresh water from the Athabasca River and other sources. Oil sands producers recycle 78-86% of water used.
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Tailings ponds can remain part of an active mine operation for 30-40 years, either for tailings deposits to settle, or for storage and water recycling. The first tailings pond, Suncor’s Pond One (Wapisiw Lookout), completed surface reclamation in 2010. Strict regulations and a comprehensive monitoring program are in place to mitigate potential impacts.
Mine operators employ multiple methods to deter waterfowl from landing on tailings ponds. These mechanisms include propane cannons, scarecrows, decoy predators and radar/laser activated acoustic deterrent systems like those used at airports, to alarm birds as they are about to land. Operators also reclaim bitumen from the surface of the ponds to reduce the risks if birds land despite the deterrents. Even with these precautions, birds have landed on the ponds and drowned as a result of oiling.
Reclaiming tailings ponds
Since tailings ponds can support mine operations for 30 to 40 years, the government requires financial guarantees for each mining project to ensure reclamation plans get carried out. Oil sands mining operators contribute to the Mine Financial Security Program, a contingency fund held by the government for reclamation of land impacted by mines. These funds are used if operators do not carry out their reclamation plans. To date, there has never been a need to draw on this fund, so it continues to grow.
Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) is an alliance of oil sands producers focused on accelerating the pace of improvement in environmental performance in Canada's oil sands through collaborative action and innovation. COSIA’s Tailings Environmental Priority Area (EPA) is focused on improving the management of oil sands tailings. Find out more about current tailings projects.
Managing tailings ponds
The Government of Alberta requires all oil sands operators to have plans in place to convert fine tailings to reclaimable landscapes. Recognizing that tailings are an important part of mining activity, the TMF is a detailed policy to manage pre-existing (legacy) and future tailings production. Project-specific targets are set for each operation to ensure fluid tailings are ready-to-reclaim within 10 years of the end-of-mine life.