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A conversation with Chris Fordham, Suncor's manager, strategy and regional integration

Oil sands tailings ponds are the focus of tremendous public debate—and controversy. Concerns have been raised about the environmental impact of these large settling ponds and what many perceive as the slow pace of reclaiming them. Stakeholders also want to know about the risk of toxic substances leaking from the ponds and potentially harming the ecosystem and human health. Chris Fordham, Suncor's manager, strategy and regional integration, provides some answers.

Why do we have tailings ponds in the first place?

FORDHAM: A majority of mining operations produce tailings, and oil sands mining is no exception. In our case, the tailings are a mixture of water, clay, sand and residual bitumen produced during the extraction process that separates bitumen from the oil sand. After the tailings are pumped into large settling ponds—often a discontinued mine pit—some of the sand is used to build containment dykes and the rest settles to the bottom of the pond. The fine clay mixture left over forms a stable suspension that, over time, will settle into a fluid-like deposit called mature fine tailings. The challenge is that, left alone, these fine tailings would take many decades to consolidate into a soil-like deposit that can be re-vegetated and reclaimed. Because mature fine tailings solids are clay, not soil, they will not support plant life. Once stable enough, the material is covered with topsoil for reclamation.

So how do you address that challenge?

FORDHAM: It's all about technology. Suncor pioneered the use of Consolidated Tailings (CT) technology in the 1990s to speed this process up. By adding gypsum, we are able to accelerate the release of water from the tailings, which can then achieve a solid surface in years rather than decades. The water released during this process is then recycled through Suncor's operations. In fact, about 80 percent of the water we use is recycled, which allows us to grow our business with no new water withdrawals.

CT technology is working, but it's still too slow for our liking. That's why we've been investing in research on new de-watering technologies that could result in another quantum leap in how fast we can reclaim existing and future tailings ponds. We are now looking for opportunities to demonstrate if these technologies can work on a commercial scale.

How do the tailings ponds regulations issued by the Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board in 2009 fit with these plans?

FORDHAM: I think it's an excellent fit. The new regulations are all about moving more quickly to reclaiming ponds to create dry, useable landscapes. The technologies we've been developing should help achieve that objective.

These regulations have real teeth. For example, starting in 2011, they require that tailings ponds must be ready for reclamation (solid and trafficable) within five years after they stop being actively used. That's a much tighter timeframe than we saw with Suncor's Pond 1, which is on track to mark a milestone in 2010 by becoming the first trafficable oil sands tailings pond with progressive surface reclamation underway.

Frankly, even with recent advances in technology, these regulations are going to be challenging to meet. But it's a challenge we welcome. Holding the entire oil sands industry to a high standard of performance will benefit everyone and will hopefully improve the public perception of this industry.

Let's talk about that. If tailings ponds are common to all kinds of mining operations, why do the oil sands ponds generate so much controversy?

FORDHAM: Well, like everything else about the oil sands, they are huge. In Suncor's case, our nine existing ponds cover a total of 31.8 square kilometers and contain approximately 230 million cubic metres of mature fine tailings. And let's be candid: these industrial ponds are not pretty to look at. So they have become the most visible symbol of the environmental impact of oil sands development.

But one thing I think industry detractors fail to acknowledge is that oil sands companies are more motivated than anyone to tackle the tailings challenge. In Suncor's case, monitoring and managing these ponds costs millions of dollars annually. Active tailings ponds account for about 30 percent of the 16,405 hectares of the disturbed land Suncor is currently working to reclaim. So solving the tailings puzzle is key to resolving our overall reclamation challenge.

There's a lot of public concern about tailings ponds being toxic. Are they?

FORDHAM: It's true that some components of fresh tailings water are toxic to fish and other aquatic organisms. The toxicity is mainly due to naphthenic acids. Naphthenic acids are naturally occurring compounds that are found in bitumen. They are found in low concentrations in the Athabasca River, but they become concentrated during the extraction process. However, studies show that natural degradation significantly reduces the toxicity of tailings water within a few months to a few years. So if we let our tailings water sit for a sufficient period of time, the naphthenic acid hydrocarbons are naturally broken down by bacteria—and that makes the water safe again for fish and other organisms.

It's been stated that, every day, some 11 million litres of toxic tailings water is released into the Athabasca River because of leaks from oil sands industry tailings ponds. Is that true?

FORDHAM: You're referring to a modeling estimate contained in a report by Environmental Defence, a Toronto-based environmental advocacy group. The first thing to say is that seepage does occur; in fact, it's built into the way that tailings ponds dykes are constructed and helps ensure the dyke's integrity and stability. But tailings ponds are also carefully designed with monitoring and seepage collection systems. As an added precaution, interceptor ditches are constructed around the ponds to collect it and return it to the pond to prevent from entering groundwater systems or waterways.

Water quality monitoring in the Athabasca River both upstream and downstream of oil sands developments shows no change in water quality.

The fact is the design, construction and operation of these ponds is closely regulated and monitored. While oil sands tailings ponds are some of the largest in the world, we also believe they are also among the most secure.

Will we ever see the day when the oil sands can be developed without producing new tailings ponds?

FORDHAM: Well, I think it's important to note the industry's in situ extraction facilities do not produce tailings. And over the long run, only 20 percent of the known oil sands reserves can be mined, while the remaining 80 percent will be reached through in situ technology. But to answer your question directly, eliminating the need for new tailings ponds is the ultimate objective, and technology is leading us in that direction. In the meantime, we are committed to ensuring our operations do not have a negative impact on water quality and to addressing the ongoing tailings challenge as vigorously as possible.

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