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Suncor Energy’s tailings-pond reclamation claims questioned

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by Richard Gilbert

Suncor Energy claims to be the first oilsands producer to complete the surface reclamation of a tailings pond, but a sustainable energy think tank is not so sure this historic milestone has been achieved.
Suncor Energy’s tailings-pond reclamation claims questioned


Suncor Energy claims to be the first oilsands producer to complete the surface reclamation of a tailings pond, but a sustainable energy think tank is not so sure this historic milestone has been achieved.

“We said we would be first to complete surface reclamation of a tailings pond and we have delivered on this important commitment,” said Rick George, Suncor president and CEO.

“We know we still have a lot of work to do, but today’s achievement is a significant step towards reducing our environmental footprint related to our operations — something we can all be extremely proud of.”

When Suncor became the first commercial producer of oil in the Athabasca region of Alberta in 1967, the company also built its first tailings pond, known as Pond 1.

Suncor recently held a ceremony to announce the pond had been solidified and turned into a 220-hectare piece of land, with grasslands, shrubs, trees and streams.

This achievement is being hailed by Suncor as a historic achievement because it provides evidence these ponds, which are actually the size of lakes, can be reclaimed and returned to nature.

The area was renamed Wapisiw Lookout in honour of the local Aboriginal peoples and the whole ceremony was webcast live.

In response, Marlo Raynolds, executive director of the Pembina Institute said the solidification of Pond 1 represents progress and does reduce environmental risk.

However, he is quick to point out that the completion of surface reclamation is just another step along the path toward returning the site back to nature.

“There has not been a reclamation certificate given out for Pond 1,” he said.

“Technically, a completion certificate is needed for the reclamation to be finished.”

Under Alberta’s Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, operators are required to conserve and reclaim specified land.

When oilsands sites are no longer productive, operators are required to return the land to a productive state.

Before applying to Alberta Environment for a reclamation certificate, operators are required to undertake an analysis of contamination and produce a report detailing how contaminants were cleaned and surface issues addressed.

“Suncor made Pond 1 into a state where they can start growing on it and start rebuilding the ecosystem,” said Raynolds.

“There is still a lot of time required to make sure the ecosystem will succeed.”

Pond 1 is a example of first-generation technology used in the oil industry for tailing-pond management.

The production process removes as much bitumen as possible from the oilsands and the remaining toxic wastewater is collected and stored in a pond.

Before being decommissioned in December 2006 and turned over for reclamation, Pond 1 was in operation for 40 years.

“In the 1960s, the expectation was that the solids, including sand, clay and residual bitumen would settle out of the water, but the fine clay is very resistant to settling out and has a consistency of yogurt,” said Suncor spokesman Brad Bellows.

“You can’t plant trees and shrubs in yogurt. There has to be a firm surface.”

He said the solution to this problem was to add sand to solidify the surface.

This process started with infilling the pond with 30 million tonnes of reclaimed tailings sand.

Drainage systems and swales were then developed to manage water runoff. As these activities were completed, landscaping activities began, which involved placing 1.2 million cubic meters of topsoil over the surface, to a depth of 50 centimetres.

“We first plant barley and oats to act as a nurse crop that stabilizes the soil and provides wind coverage and moisture retention,” said Bellows.

“Then we follow by planting native plant species. The terrain is designed to accommodate both woodlands and wetlands.”

Over the next two decades, Suncor will maintain and monitor progress. The company expects the land will become a self-sustaining ecosystem.

Raynolds agreed that this announcement is welcome, but he still has some concerns.

“The true test is how much land is certified as reclaimed by law,” he said. “After more than 40 years of oilsands operations, less than 0.2 per cent of disturbed lands are certified as reclaimed.”

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