The Alberta Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) has finally, formally issued oil sands tailings performance criteria and requirements. They are little changed from previous drafts. They still focus on your ability to walk or drive out over the tailings soon after they have been placed.

At this link is the ERCB website where you can find the criteria and requirements and all the associated documents that justify them. The press release at the link I give above says this:

Directive 074: Tailings Performance Criteria and Requirements for Oil Sands Mining Schemes requires operators to:

  • Prepare tailings plans and report on tailings ponds annually,
  • Reduce the accumulation of fluid tailings by capturing fines and placing them in a deposit that is trafficable and,
  • Specify dates for construction, use and closure of fluid tailings ponds deposits and file these dates with the ERCB by September 30, 2009.

In past applications, mineable oils sands operators proposed the conversion of fluid tailings into deposits that would become trafficable and ready for reclamation. While operators have applied fluid tailings reduction technologies, they have not met the targets set out in their applications; as a result, the inventories of fluid tailings that require long-term containment have grown. With each successive application and approval, public concerns have also grown.

“Tailings” is a term used to describe waste from oil sands extraction processes. This waste is generally composed of water, sands, silt, clay and residual bitumen. Alberta’s inventory of fluid fine tailings that require long term containment is now 720 million cubic metres.

Directive 074: Tailings Performance Criteria and Requirements for Oil Sands Mining Schemes also contains new rules pertaining to Dedicated Disposal Areas (DDAs). DDAs are dedicated to the deposition of captured fines, which are more solid in composition than liquid tailings and must be trafficable and ready for reclamation five years after deposits have ceased. Operators must:

  1. Reduce the accumulation of fine fluid tailings by capturing a minimum amount of fines (mineral solids with particle sizes equal to or less than 44 micrometres) as proposed in applications or as approved by the ERCB and place the captured fines in a DDA;
  2. Prepare a plan for every DDA whereby tailings deposits are trafficable and ready for reclamation five years after active deposition has ceased. The plans would be reviewed for the establishment of performance measures by the ERCB, and
  3. Operate and abandon each DDA in accordance with applications or ERCB approvals.

I wrote about these regulations a while ago explaining my concerns, but here are a few other comments:

I cannot fathom the focus on trafficability. I understand that it is necessary to be able to walk on the tailings or better still drive on them so you plant trees and let animals roam. It looks nice when there are trees and free-range animals on a former tailings impoundment. But that is kind of like dipping an old apple in Godiva chocolate and calling it good.

At the other end of the specificity scale, these regulations say nothing. They boil down to “tells us when you are going to do what you said you would do.” At least as is applicable to existing impoundments.

New operations yet to come to production have to set about thoroughly mixing the fines and the coarse so that a pick-up truck can drive on the stuff within a year.

I have seen all those beaming smiles in photos of tailings oozing out of cyclones and other spinners. Seems as though the operators have focussed the attention of the ERCB on the ability to walk about with a smile. Rather than come up with a set of regulations that acknowledges reality, existence, seepage, dam/dike breech, geomorphic stability, the long-term, and all the other things that involve perpetual care and maintenance.

Has Alberta forgotten that there is such a thing as human ingenuity and inventiveness? And that there are many more aspects to tailings closure than the ability to walk out on the tailings and plant trees to provide shade to critters?

Maybe the fine writers and document format artists at the Pembina Institute are also too fixated on the beauty of their productions to realize there is more to specificity and facility closure than format and beauty. There is such a thing as content. For sure, there is no content in their press release, which reads in part:

“Given the very weak track record of the ERCB and the Government of Alberta in implementing and enforcing oil sands environmental regulations, it may take two to five years to determine if this directive has teeth,” says Grant. “Transparency regarding annual reporting, performance and enforcement will be paramount to the directive’s credibility and success.”