Alberta’s seven tar sands/oil sands operators have filed their plans for meeting marginally tougher provincial expectations for reclaiming the toxin-filled mine tailings ponds that now cover an area larger than Washington, D.C.
Alberta’s Energy Regulator directed the producers in July to file long-term plans by November 1, showing how they plan to “clean up the pools of residual bitumen, water, sand, and clay” and ensure that the remaining surface waste “meets certain environmental standards within 10 years of the mine closing,” the Calgary Herald reports. Previously, the Regulator had set no timetable for reclaiming abandoned tailings ponds.
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However, the standard to which the ponds—currently vast basins of concentrated toxins lethal to wildlife—must be restored is hardly their pre-disturbance condition. Rather, according to the Herald, “tailings must be ‘ready to reclaim,’ which means they have to be treated and on their way to returning to a natural state, such as a wetland or a forested landscape.”
“The mining industry in the oilsands is young in terms of our long-term plans here,” said Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers spokesperson Patrick McDonald. “While there might be a disturbance and the use of tailings ponds now, [it doesn’t mean] we don’t have the ability to reclaim them.”
However, the cleanup effort has triggered strong disagreement in the past from a scientist who studied hundreds of wetland plots the industry claims to have reclaimed already. Alberta ecologist Kevin Timoney found that they remained polluted and unsafe for wildlife, creating “a damaged and contaminated landscape, a national sacrifice zone.”
The Alberta Energy Regulator will consider producers’ submissions and develop project-specific conditions for each operator, the Herald says, “including limits on the size of their ponds. Violators face fines and cuts to their production” if they fail to comply with the new requirements.