General

Mineral Tailings Ponds

Mineral Tailings Ponds

Mineral tailings ponds are an unavoidable waste product of the oil sands industry.1 They form a mixture of water, sand, clay, unrecovered bitumen and other contaminants.2 Unfortunately, tailings ponds are also highly toxic due to harmful chemicals, such as ammonia, mercury and naphthenic acids.3 Even worse, in Alberta, they have been leaking for decades – endangering animals and humans alike.4

Alberta’s oil sands’ mineral tailings ponds

In Alberta, Canada, tailings ponds have grown unabated over the past 50 years, due to the region’s oil sands industry.5 In fact, they doubled in volume between 2008 and 2018.6 Alberta’s tailings ponds now cover more than 220 square kilometres7 and contain enough waste to fill more than 500,000 Olympic swimming pools.8

Birds and other animals have to be prevented from entering them for their own safety.9 But, this has not protected local wildlife. Since 1973, the earliest days of oil sands development, both the federal government and the oil sands industry have known that tailings waste is leaking into the surrounding soil.10 

Are tailings fluids contaminating the Athabasca River?

If tailings fluids are entering the Athabasca River, this would pose a serious environmental problem. Animals, particularly aquatic organisms, are extremely vulnerable to the chemicals in tailings ponds.11 Birds can be harmed simply by coming into contact with the water.12 There is, however, evidence that liquid in tailings ponds has been migrating past ditch systems and entering nearby waterways.13 An estimated 785 million litres of tailings fluid contaminated the local area in 2017 alone.14 Not only is this a threat to animals and birds, but it also has dangerous repercussions for the people who live downstream too. 

The Athabasca River flows through the oil sands region before reaching Fort Chipewyan and other towns close to the river’s mouth. With so many tailings ponds lining the riverbank, they are visible from space.15 High levels of contaminants have entered the river and poisoned fish and animals.16 Some of these have subsequently been consumed by humans.17 This has led to 30.7 per cent higher rates of cancer amongst residents downstream of the oil sands industry.18 

Elevated rates of cholangiocarcinoma a rare and deadly cancer of the bile duct – have been found at Fort Chipewyan. The demographic of Fort Chip – as it is colloquially known – is about 80 per cent Aboriginal. It is traditional for these Indigenous Peoples to hunt and fish along the river. However, many also find lucrative employment in the nearby oil sands sector. This has led to a reticence to speak out about the pollution it is causing.19

Who will clean Alberta’s toxic tailings ponds?

The dangers of Alberta’s toxic tailings ponds have been common knowledge for years. Seepage of toxic chemicals into surrounding soil was clear to the federal government and industry in the 1970s.20 Yet, there is still very little regulatory oversight, nor a plan to clean and recover the ponds.21 1,600 ducks died in a Syncrude tailings pond in 2008 because there were insufficient measures to prevent them from landing.22 The incident led then-Premier Ed Stelmach to assure the community that the regulator would “aggressively” crack down on the industry.23 Successive Premier Alison Redford made similar statements in 2013. She promised that “tailings ponds will disappear from Alberta’s landscape in the very near future”, and their growth will “completely halt by 2016.”24 However, the industry continues to expand the extensive and leaking ponds to this day. 

The Alberta Energy Regulator recognises that oil sands cannot be mined without producing tailings which “pose a significant problem to the environment and public safety” and “take decades to remove”.25 With such widespread acknowledgement of the harm oil sands causes, a pivot away from this dirty fossil fuel is both prudent and long overdue.

Mineral Tailings Ponds graphicAlberta taling ponds graphicTailing ponds link to cancer graphicNo plan to clean Alberta tailing ponds graphic

Sources

  1. Alberta Energy Regulator. (2020). Tailings. [online] Available at: https://www.aer.ca/providing-information/by-topic/tailings [Accessed 16 Feb. 2021].
  2. Energyeducation.ca. (2018). Oil sands tailings ponds – Energy Education. [online] Available at: https://energyeducation.ca/encyclopedia/Oil_sands_tailings_ponds.
  3. Energyeducation.ca. (2018). Oil sands tailings ponds – Energy Education. [online] Available at: https://energyeducation.ca/encyclopedia/Oil_sands_tailings_ponds.
  4. Commission for Environmental Cooperation Alberta Tailings Ponds II. (n.d.). [online] . Available at: http://www.cec.org/wp-content/uploads/wpallimport/files/17-1-ffr_en.pdf [Accessed 16 Feb. 2021].
  5. Pembina Institute (2018). Oilsands tailing ponds are a nasty challenge that can’t be ignored. [online] Pembina Institute. Available at: https://www.pembina.org/op-ed/oilsands-tailing-ponds-are-nasty-challenge-cant-be-ignored.
  6. Pembina Institute (2018). Oilsands tailing ponds are a nasty challenge that can’t be ignored. [online] Pembina Institute. Available at: https://www.pembina.org/op-ed/oilsands-tailing-ponds-are-nasty-challenge-cant-be-ignored.
  7. Energyeducation.ca. (2018). Oil sands tailings ponds – Energy Education. [online] Available at: https://energyeducation.ca/encyclopedia/Oil_sands_tailings_ponds.
  8. Pembina Institute (2018). Oilsands tailing ponds are a nasty challenge that can’t be ignored. [online] Pembina Institute. Available at: https://www.pembina.org/op-ed/oilsands-tailing-ponds-are-nasty-challenge-cant-be-ignored.
  9. Leahy, S. (2019). This is the world’s most destructive oil operation—and it’s growing. [online] Nationalgeographic.com. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/04/alberta-canadas-tar-sands-is-growing-but-indigenous-people-fight-back/.
  10. Commission for Environmental Cooperation Alberta Tailings Ponds II. (n.d.). [online] . Available at: http://www.cec.org/wp-content/uploads/wpallimport/files/17-1-ffr_en.pdf [Accessed 16 Feb. 2021].
  11. Energyeducation.ca. (2018). Oil sands tailings ponds – Energy Education. [online] Available at: https://energyeducation.ca/encyclopedia/Oil_sands_tailings_ponds.
  12. Energyeducation.ca. (2018). Oil sands tailings ponds – Energy Education. [online] Available at: https://energyeducation.ca/encyclopedia/Oil_sands_tailings_ponds.
  13. Dene National Chief calls on gov’t to act on Alberta’s leaking tailings ponds | CBC News. (n.d.). CBC. [online] Available at: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/tailings-alberta-dene-water-1.5846012 [Accessed 16 Feb. 2021].
  14. Dene National Chief calls on gov’t to act on Alberta’s leaking tailings ponds | CBC News. (n.d.). CBC. [online] Available at: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/tailings-alberta-dene-water-1.5846012 [Accessed 16 Feb. 2021].
  15. Leahy, S. (2019). This is the world’s most destructive oil operation—and it’s growing. [online] Nationalgeographic.com. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/04/alberta-canadas-tar-sands-is-growing-but-indigenous-people-fight-back/.
  16. Financial Post. (n.d.). Oil sands pollution linked to higher cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan for first time: study. [online] Available at: https://financialpost.com/news/oil-sands-pollution-linked-to-higher-cancer-rates-in-fort-chipewyan-study-finds.
  17. Financial Post. (n.d.). Oil sands pollution linked to higher cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan for first time: study. [online] Available at: https://financialpost.com/news/oil-sands-pollution-linked-to-higher-cancer-rates-in-fort-chipewyan-study-finds.
  18. Features, S.L. |, Energy and December 17th 2019, P. | (2019). Downstream of oilsands, death by cancer comes too often. [online] National Observer. Available at: https://www.nationalobserver.com/2019/12/17/features/downstream-oilsands-death-cancer-comes-too-often.
  19. Public Radio International. (2015). Alberta tar sands pollution suspected in rare cancer cases. [online] Available at: https://www.pri.org/stories/2015-02-19/alberta-tar-sands-pollution-suspected-rare-cancer-cases [Accessed 6 Apr. 2019].
  20. Commission for Environmental Cooperation Alberta Tailings Ponds II. (n.d.). [online] . Available at: http://www.cec.org/wp-content/uploads/wpallimport/files/17-1-ffr_en.pdf [Accessed 16 Feb. 2021].
  21. Pembina Institute (2018). Oilsands tailing ponds are a nasty challenge that can’t be ignored. [online] Pembina Institute. Available at: https://www.pembina.org/op-ed/oilsands-tailing-ponds-are-nasty-challenge-cant-be-ignored.
  22. Jones, J. (2010). Syncrude guilty in 1,600 duck deaths in toxic pond. Reuters. [online] 25 Jun. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-syncrude-ducks-idUSTRE65O68520100625 [Accessed 16 Feb. 2021].
  23. Pembina Institute (2018). Oilsands tailing ponds are a nasty challenge that can’t be ignored. [online] Pembina Institute. Available at: https://www.pembina.org/op-ed/oilsands-tailing-ponds-are-nasty-challenge-cant-be-ignored.
  24. Pembina Institute (2018). Oilsands tailing ponds are a nasty challenge that can’t be ignored. [online] Pembina Institute. Available at: https://www.pembina.org/op-ed/oilsands-tailing-ponds-are-nasty-challenge-cant-be-ignored.
  25. Alberta Energy Regulator. (2020). Tailings. [online] Available at: https://www.aer.ca/providing-information/by-topic/tailings.
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