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Report: Tailings Ponds Won’t See a Decrease until 2037

Fort McMurray, AB, Canada / MIX 103.7
Report: Tailings Ponds Won't See a Decrease until 2037

Information gathered from different oilsands suggests tailings ponds won’t see decreases in size for at least 20 years.

The Pembina Institute studied eight mines around Fort McMurray after oil and gas companies sent in their new Tailings Management Plan to the Alberta Energy Regulator.

After reviewing the submissions, they suggest tailings will continue to grow until 2037.

Policy Analyst with the Pembina Institute Jodi McNeill tells Mix News Albertans will have to wait longer than hoped to see these potentially toxic areas be cleaned up.

“There are some really concerning precedents for companies leaving their waste behind and leaving taxpayers on the hook to pay for the cleanup. There is this really big concern that if allow companies to keep kicking the can down the road that the mess is just going to be leftover and Albertans are going to be on the hook.”

She notes abandoned mines in B.C. and the Yukon are costing taxpayers billions of dollars.

From 1967 to 2009, there were no regulations for these ponds and they were allowed to grow.  Over a four-year period of 2009 to 2013, the first plan was introduced and enforced.

“But the industry grouped together and played a game of chicken with the regulator and all refused to comply with it,” McNeill said.

Last July, AER made a new directive for oilsands to follow for cleaning up their tailings ponds. Six oil producers submitted its plans for eight projects. Suncor was the first to submit their plan, which was rejected a couple weeks ago.

“Suncor’s plan was rejected for not be compliant with the new rules,” said McNeill.

“Suncor’s plan was not particularly bad relative to the other ones, it was middle of the road even one of the better ones by some metrics. The problem is with all of the plans that have been submitted, being very deficient and we expect the regulator to reject other plans as well.”

AER is currently reviewing CNRL’s plan.

McNeill notes most of the oilsands are predicting 70 years before the land can be reclaimed by Albertans after the mine closes. She adds oil companies over the past 50 years have been waiting for a technological discovery that could clean up the ponds but this has yet to happen.

“That is a high-risk approach and the fact of the matter is, there are technologies that do exist that can clean this up a lot faster than that and it’s a matter of investment and commitment.

Six of the eight plans also mentioned the idea of water capping. This technique involves filling empty mine pits, lined with untreated fluid tailings at the bottom, with water creating man-made lakes.

“This is a cheap and easy solution that is more appealing to industry than investing a lot more time and money to more aggressive treatment options,” added McNeill.

The new directive from the AER states companies can’t use this technique, as of yet.

Last fall, the Alberta Government said it would consider a loan to the Orphan Wells, an industry-funded clean-up organization, to fast-track the cleanup.

Between 2015 and 2016, the association was able to reclaim 61 rigs but has been struggling to keep up with the demand.

Last month, Alberta Energy Regulator reported there were nearly 900 rigs deserted over the last three years, making the total number of abandoned wells in the region sitting at around 18,000.

According to McNeill, there are 1.2 trillion litres of toxic waste across in Northern Alberta.

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