SOURCE: The Star
DATE: November 23, 2018
SNIP: The toxic waste of the Canadian oilpatch [near Fort McMurray, Alberta] has been quietly spreading in the boreal forest since bitumen mining began here in the 1960s.
The yogurt-like mix of clay, water, toxic acids, metals and leftover bitumen has sprawled in artificial ponds to cover an area twice the size of the city of Vancouver.
More than one trillion litres of the goop, called tailings, fill these man-made waste lakes that can be seen from space. An equivalent amount of water would take five days to tumble over Niagara Falls.
The contaminated tailings ponds attract and kill migrating birds. They emit methane and other greenhouse gases.
Despite years of public promises from officials that the tailings ponds would shrink and go away, they are growing, and they’re right along the migratory pathways for millions of birds that use the freshwater Peace-Athabasca delta for breeding or as a stopover as they move farther north to breed. And in the meantime, troubling gaps are opening in the oversight system meant to ensure the oilpatch cleans up its mess. Alberta has collected only $1 billion from companies to help remediate tailings — a problem that is now estimated to cost about 100 times that.
Decades and billions have been spent on research and still there is no sure solution to a problem that is getting attention beyond Alberta.
While the world watches, the mining companies operating here have been allowed by regulators to pursue a clean-up technique called water capping.
It’s supposed to work like this: put the tailings into a mined-out pit, then cover it with fresh water from a nearby river or reservoir. The idea, according to oil producer Syncrude, is that the tailings will settle to the bottom and over time the lake will turn into a healthy ecosystem supporting fish, animals and aquatic plants.
“It’s biologically and chemically an impossible fantasy,” said David Schindler, a former University of Alberta professor and renowned freshwater scientist and officer of the Order of Canada.
The ponds, meanwhile, are polluting the air and leaking out the bottom, possibly reaching surrounding groundwater and the nearby Athabasca River.
“One day, because of the environmental impacts, my people will become environmental refugees,” said Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam.
Every spring and fall the ducks, loons, herons, raptors, songbirds and other birds, some of them rare, congregate. Those seasons are stormy, sending the birds in a hurry to find a safe spot to land.
Mining companies are required to place bird deterrents on and around their ponds. The result is eerie: near-constant booms of bird cannons, nightmarish shrieks of radar-activated mechanical falcons and faceless scarecrows perched above the surface.
The ruses don’t always work. Every year an estimated 200,000 birds land on the oilsands’ industrial water bodies, including tailings ponds, according to a 2013 report by the University of Alberta’s Oil Sands Bird Monitoring Program.
“It only takes a dime-size drop of oil to kill a bird,” said Sarah Hechtenthal, a wildlife biologist.
[Please read the whole article. It is devastating.]