Few issues illustrate the dirty nature of bitumen production better than growing lakes of toxic mining waste along the Athabasca River in northern Canada.
These industry-made impoundments now contain 187 billion gallons of sludge that includes phenols, arsenic, mercury, cancer-makers such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and fish-killing naphthenic acids.
The dams not only pose multibillion-dollar liabilities for investors but also threaten water quality in the world's third largest watershed, the Mackenzie River Basin. Their determined accumulation also confirms a genuine state of regulatory neglect in the tar sands, the world's largest energy project and number one supplier of U.S. oil.
The size and scale of these leaking ponds are striking. About a dozen "ponds" rise 300 feet above the ground and cover 80 square miles of boreal forest and wetlands. Until recently, the U.S. Department of the Interior rated Syncrude's Tailing Dam as the world's largest dam in terms of volume of construction material (706,320,000 cubic yards). Now China's Three Gorges Dam holds the title.
Almost all the dikes in the tar sands are leaking, but the Alberta government does not report the volume of seepage. For more than 40 years, Suncor's Tar Island dike directly spewed or leaked bitumen and chemicals into the Athabasca River.
Environmental Defense recently calculated that one billion gallons of tailings waste now leaches into groundwater or surface water every year. In a recent mining blog, Jack Caldwell, a crusty U.S. geotechnical engineer, didn't think the U.S. EPA would tolerate such a situation. "But then Canada is a small country of rugged individuals living in a harsh climate."
Migratory fowl often mistake these apocalyptic waters as safe havens and die coated in bitumen. Every year, about 7,000 ducks and geese perish in the ponds. When Syncrude forgot to set up its propane canons to scare off birds last year, more than 500 ducks drowned and made international headlines. It took Canadian regulators nearly a year to lay charges. (In real terms habitat destruction for boreal song birds by tar sands steam plants in situ projects poses a much more significant threat to wildlife.)
Dikes containing mining waste are among the world's least reliable man-made structures. Extreme weather events, earthquakes and poor design can trigger a catastrophic collapse. A massive dam containing coal ash, the residue of coal burning, broke last year in Tennessee spilling 129 million tons of waste containing arsenic, lead and mercury into two rivers. Both scientists and aboriginals fear that a breached tailing pond could poison water for 40,000 people and travel all the way to the Arctic Ocean.
Bad Engineering and Government Neglect
The accumulation of tar sands waste represents the product of bad engineering and government neglect. To separate sand and clay from bitumen, industry uses approximately 12 barrels of hot water mixed with caustic chemicals to produce one barrel of bitumen. In the process, approximately three barrels of contaminated water end up in tailings ponds. No one predicted that it might take hundreds of years for the clay to separate from the water.
Although industry recycles much of its dirty water, continuous recycling may well impede bitumen recovery and reclamation of dam sites by raising salt content of the ponds by 75 miligrams per liter per year. According to a 2008 study in the Journal of Environmental Engineering and Science, high concentrations of sulfate, chloride and ammonia "have raised concerns about scaling and corrosion" as well as "chronic toxicity in reclaimed environments." Nothing about bitumen production is pretty.
Industry and government have known about the sludge problem for a long time. A series of 1973 reports for Alberta Environment, An Environmental Study of the Athabasca Tar Sands, identified "these large open bodies of polluted water" as "the most disturbing aspect of mining in tar sands from an ecological as well as an aesthetic point of view."
The studies described growing waste ponds as "the most imminent environmental constraint" to the industry because of the threat of dike failure, seepage and groundwater pollution. They recommended "an alternative solution," because "The possibility for pollution of the surface waters will exist wherever impounding of liquid tailings is permitted."
Twenty Years Passed and the Ponds Grew
In 1992 Syncrude's environment manager Bruce Friesen lamented that "the ongoing accumulation of fluid fine tails by the oil sands industry has generated concerns for regulatory agencies, the general public and for the industry." (Just one of Syncrude's dike contains enough sludge to fill 160,000 Olympic sized swimming pools.) He also worried about "the potential for contamination of groundwater," because many dikes have been built on top of underground sink holes.
A dike failure would cause "severe damage to buildings, vegetation and wild life," Friesen wrote. He, too, fretted about the "initial toxicity of the tails."
But the ponds continued to expand. In recent years, Canada's National Energy Board described the impoundments as "daunting," while the Alberta Chamber of Resources called them "a risk to the oil sands industry." In a pastoral letter, the Catholic Bishop Luc Bouchard recently denounced the ponds as "a very long term threat to the region's aquifers and the quality of the water in the Athabasca River."
This year, the Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board finally acted. After nearly 40 years of dithering, the board finally ordered companies to reduce wet tailings waste by 50 percent by 2013 and to switch to a dry tailings production method. As one scientist noted: "After riding a regulatory bicycle for so many years, it is interesting that the ERCB is now in a Ferrari with their foot to the floor." He guessed the cleanup would have a significant cost and wondered if the board would enforce the new rules. No one has a good plan for the existing waste.
Last year, the U.S. Congressional Research Service took a hard look at tar sands deposits on the continent. It concluded that Canada's environmental costs were so extreme with its "water requirements, toxic tailings" that similar projects in Utah and California "might not be a very attractive investment in the near term."