Why be concerned about tailings ponds? How tailings ponds can harm both wildlife and human health:
Samantha Pedersen, Gillian Chow-Fraser
In October, the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) released the year’s update on oil sands tailings. The report appears initially optimistic, even shockingly reporting a slight decline in tailings volumes for 2021 (altogether more shocking as companies reported the highest levels of bitumen production ever seen that same year). But, upon closer inspection, the numbers are too good to be true. The slight decline (1351 Mm³ in 2020 to 1345 Mm³ in 2021) was due to reclassification of certain types of tailings and more refined back-calculations that actually modified previously reported volumes. The regulator even notes that fluid tailings volumes are still expected to increase in 2022. Even if the volume was truly decreasing, a CPAWS analysis shows that recent estimates of fluid tailings area is still nearly 120 square kilometers. Long story short: this plateau is an anomaly and tailings volumes and area are still going to keep increasing.
This month we also celebrate our six-month anniversary of the release of 50 Years of Sprawling Tailings (yes, we’re that kind of organization). Since its release, we have continued to collaborate with civil society organizations and Indigenous organizations on how to safely address oil sands tailings concerns. The regulator report is a stark reminder of the persistent threat oil sands tailings perpetuate on the environment. These threats and community impacts are highlighted in our report. If you missed it, here’s a snippet of the work:
“We are being poisoned slowly by the toxic soup they make.” says Jean L’Hommecourt, a Denesuline woman living outside of Fort McKay, Alberta.
Fort McKay is a community surrounded by the oil sands and the tailings ponds that accompany them. Tailings ponds are large bodies of fluid waste from the oil sands extraction process – they are a byproduct of separating bitumen from clay and silt using high volumes of water and other chemicals. The term ‘pond’ is misleading – the true definition of a pond is a body of water less than five hectares in area, or 0.05 square kilometers . A far cry from this definition, the largest tailings “pond” – is 30 square kilometers, 600 times larger than what would normally be considered a pond. And that’s just one of them. Together, total tailings footprint cover over 300 square kilometers; if combined, their area could cover downtown Vancouver over two and a half times.
The daunting size of tailings “ponds” is all the more concerning due to their contents. Jean, along with many others in surrounding and downstream communities, are concerned about the fact that tailings ponds are acutely toxic. Acute toxicity means that only one exposure, or several exposures in a short period, can cause negative health effects. The compounds responsible for the toxicity of tailings ponds include compounds you may be familiar with such as benzene, lead, mercury, arsenic, nickel, vanadium, chromium, and selenium; as well as what may be unfamiliar compounds: naphthenic acids (linked with hormone disruption and immune system dysfunction), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (some are carcinogenic, triggering genetic mutations in fish species), and leftover bitumen. The purpose of tailings ponds are to store this waste, keeping it separate from the environment. Spoiler alert: they’re not doing that. Tailings ponds have been leaking for years.
Credit: Global Forest Watch
Industry has known about seepage since the beginning of the oil sands. Suncor and Syncrude’s own data shows that tailings fluids are leaking into groundwater, with toxins detected at wells concerningly close to surface waters…especially concerning when you consider the proximity of many tailings to nearby rivers that provide drinking water for downstream communities. Seepage into groundwater, as well as evaporation from ponds followed by precipitation, have led residents of nearby communities to question their drinking water. On hot days, evaporation followed by sudden cooling leaves particles hanging in the air. Community members have noticed severe asthma and other respiratory illnesses in children, and attribute it to deteriorating air quality. Anyone who’s taken elementary school science likely learned about the water cycle and its connectivity – the toxic elements of tailings ponds are not staying in the oil sands.
In 2008, one major impact of tailings ponds entered the radar of the general public when 1600 ducks landed on a Syncrude tailings pond, became covered in bitumen and then drowned. How could this happen? There are several factors at play. First, this occurred in early May, when natural water bodies are typically frozen but tailings “ponds” are not. Due to the salt content of tailings ponds and the warm waste fluids that enter the “ponds”, their fluid freezes at colder temperatures than clean water. For a duck, this warm open water might seem inviting, especially during a storm, or at night when bitumen floating on the water is less visible. But this is a deadly mistake.
Credit: Todd Powell, Alberta Fish and Wildlife
Credit: Freysteinn G Jonsson, Unsplash
These kinds of mass deaths still aren’t ‘supposed’ to happen. Bird deterrents such as lights, sounds, and scarecrows supposedly dissuade flocks from landing on tailings ponds. However, there is limited evidence to support their effectiveness – factors such as bird species, bird sex, season, weather conditions, and time of day all impact how likely a bird is to be scared off. And, little is known of the birds that come into contact with the toxic “ponds” but manage to fly away. Some that are oiled manage to escape. However, the sub-lethal effects of landing on tailings ponds are not well studied. There is concern that landing on tailings ponds may have a negative impact on birds’ health and/or the health of their offspring.
Syncrude was fined several million dollars for the lives of these ducks in 2008. Unsurprisingly, a fine didn’t repair the issue. Just two years later, 230 birds died on the exact same ‘pond’; then another 30 in 2014. From 2017-2021, compiled annual reports across all tailings ponds recorded 280,369 birds landed on the ponds, 3,244 were oiled, and 1,244 birds died. Of these mortalities 53 were species of conservation concern, whose populations are decreasing.
Credit: Global Forest Watch
In May, 2022 the Canadian Park and Wilderness Society Northern Alberta Chapter (CPAWS Northern Alberta) and Environmental Defense collaborated to release a report about tailings, outlining the risk they pose to both environmental and human health.