Ambitious plans for oil sands would create lakes from waste – by Nathan Vanderklippe (Globe and Mail – October 3, 2012)

The Globe and Mail is Canada’s national newspaper with the second largest broadsheet circulation in the country. It has enormous influence on Canada’s political and business elite

CALGARY — It could one day be Alberta’s very own Lake District, a recreational haven complete with campgrounds, boating, fishing – even swimming. Or it could turn into a landscape of ponds sullied by toxins and oil, a malingering presence left by an industrial experiment gone wrong.

It may take a century to find out what is left around Fort McMurray. Because the lakes, 30 of them, will be built by Canada’s oil sands industry. When the companies mining heavy crude from northeastern Alberta finish their work, they intend to pump water into old mine pits, some with toxic effluent at their bottoms, before leaving the area to biological processes to restore it to health.

If those plans go according to form, oil sands miners will leave behind broad stretches of new shore perched beside waters clean enough for fish and people. Success on this front would vindicate industry pledges to limit the mark it leaves on an area now home to sprawling open-pit mines.

But the coming lake district also highlights the scale of the ecological gamble under way in the province. The 30 bodies of water will be what are known as end pit lakes, left behind because it’s less costly to fill a mine with water than dirt. Their size and scale are laid out in a new document produced by Alberta’s industry-funded Cumulative Environmental Management Association.

The document makes clear the vast permanent environmental imprint being contemplated by one of Canada’s most important industries.

It also outlines the uncertainties attached to plans for so many lakes, even though companies have yet to build their first one in the oil sands. Industry has done trials and is confident they will work. At least some of the science, however, can’t be done until the first lake is actually built, and it will take decades to measure and assess its effectiveness.

“This is a total crapshoot, in the sense that no one has ever done this before. But really, what are your options?” said one person familiar with the report, which will be released this week.

Perhaps the only certainty is that the lake district will cover substantial ground. The exact size is subject to changing mining plans – including some from projects not yet built – but it seems likely they will take up, in aggregate, more than 100 square kilometres as part of a series of artificial watersheds spreading over 2,500 square kilometres. By comparison, Toronto occupies 630 square kilometres.

The lakes are a project that will engage several generations. Each stands to take a century of work to plan, mine out and establish into a functioning ecological feature. From the moment workers end mining and begin filling the lakes, it could take fully 40 years before governments begin certifying them as environmentally sustainable, the 436-page CEMA report estimates.

The report is also a striking look at how much remains unknown about lakes that will, in some cases, bury mine effluent called tailings. Those tailings are largely sand and clay, although they are laced with hydrocarbons, salts and naphthenic acids sufficiently toxic that they cannot be released into the environment.

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