Tar sands not only increase climate change causing greenhouse gas emissions, they destroy habitats and contaminate air, soil and water. Tailing ponds at tar sands extraction sites have been growing in Alberta for decades and they keep getting bigger. There are now more than a trillion litres of tailings in artificial ponds covering cover 230 km² or 88 square miles. By 2030 there will be a trillion and half.
These tailings contain bitumen, toxic acids and metals. They emit methane and other greenhouse gases and they are a source of carcinogenic volatile organic compounds like benzene. They also threaten groundwater and rivers. A 2014 study by Richard Frank showed that tar sands tainted groundwater was reaching the Athabasca River. Indigenous people who live near these waterways are also at risk. They cannot eat the fish or the game and the combination of these factors may one day make them environmental refugees.
Tar sands tailings ponds also kill migrating birds. The ponds are directly along the migratory pathways of millions of birds. A 2013 report by the University of Alberta’s Oil Sands Bird Monitoring Program reported that hundreds of thousands of birds land on industrial water bodies like tailings ponds. In one well documented incident in 2009 more than 1,600 ducks died after landing on a Syncrude tailings pond.
These tailing ponds cost of as much as $260 billion to clean yet the industry that created the problem has only ponied up one percent of the actual cost into what is known as the Mine Financial Security Program.
Even if we could afford them clean-up techniques do not do what they are supposed to do. One of the ‘best practies’ clean-up techniques is called water capping. It has been dismissed as “biologically and chemically an impossible fantasy,” according to David Schindler, a former University of Alberta professor and renowned freshwater scientist and officer of the Order of Canada. Calling water capping “hubristic,” he decried the regulator as “gullible” for approving the plan “without evidence that even one…can be restored as claimed.”
A Syncrude report on a water capping experiment at Base Mine Lake reveals toxic levels of methane and ammonia that made it inhospitable to most forms of life. Below the surface, there is low oxygen, high salinity, naphthenic acids and chloride. There are also concerns that over the long term sediments could generate methane gas bubbles which would reintroduce the tailings into surface water. Other techniques are either less effective or more costly.