Pesky Tailings Ponds

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Way down in Tennesse, a major spill has occurred. Over 3.7 billion litres of slurry, comprised of fly ash from a coal fired power plant and water, has spilled into the local environment. The dams allegedly broke due to large rainfall and very cold weather – but ultimately, they broke because they were not strong enough. This spill is over 4 times larger than the oil spilt by the Exxon Valdeez and poses some questions about the safety of large tailings ponds.

I was personally involved in the tailings management at a gold mine in Ontario and it was a constant battle to process the tailings fast enough to avoid building new dams. We had to meet strict environmental requirements for the water we processed and discharged, but we were able to discharge. Many of these tailing ponds cannot be easily processed and as such, cannot be discharged.

Up here in Canada we are the proud owners of the largest tailing ponds on the planet, they are even visible from space. Centered around the tar sands projects in Alberta, these ponds represent significant risk to the people of Alberta and everyone downstream. The largest one, Syncrude’s, has an astonishing 540 trillion litres of volume. Are they safe? Of course their owners say they are, but so did the owner of the coal plant in Tennesse. 

With oil prices near 40$ and looming budget cuts for the tar sands, we can only hope that they do not skimp on their environmental responsibilities.