Water contamination and the tailings ponds represent another side to the story around oil and water in Alberta. The tailings ponds are gigantic man-made dams, which store the waste-water collected from oil sands extraction processes. The ponds are open-air recycling vats meant to slowly revert water back to a state of non-toxicity. While some of this water is re-used, a large part remains standing in the ponds. Approximately 1.8 billions litres of tailings combined are dumped into tailings ponds every day.
Tailings ponds currently cover no less than 50 square kilometers of boreal forest land. Visible from space, Syncrude’s Southwest Sand Storage (SWSS) Facility is one of the three largest dams in the world, outsized only by China’s Three Gorges dam.
Serious environmental worries about the tailings ponds include the threat of the leaching of pollutants into the groundwater and the soil and surface water around the ponds. Toxins released into the environment from tailings ponds include naphthenic acids, trace metals, and ammonia. A report released in December of 2008 by Environmental Defence suggests that 11 million litres of contaminated water are leaked from tailings ponds every day. The report, 11 Million Litres a Day: The Tar Sands’ Leaking Legacy estimates that currently over four billion litres of tailings water enters groundwater every year, with proposed projects bringing this number up to over 25 billion litres per year within a decade.
Tailings ponds also pose a serious direct threat to wildlife. For example, most tailings ponds are equipped with measures to help discourage birds from landing in them (including noisemakers and radar-activated cannons), but many birds and other animals still meet their demise in tailings ponds. In May of 2008, a flock of more than 500 birds landed in a Syncrude tailings pond. Despite efforts to save them, most died. Syncrude did not report the incident, which, as Mike Hudema of Greenpeace Canada commented ‘begs the question of how many other incidents have been quietly covered up to safeguard their image”.
The threat of dam collapse is another issue that looms heavily over tailings pond projects. Statistics indicate that worldwide between the period of 1995-2001 similarly constructed dykes broke at a rate of 2 per year. Water ecologist Dr. David Schindler, has been quoted as saying, “If any of these tailings ponds ever burst the world would forever forget about the Exxon Valdez.”