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Finding ways to get fluid tailings to be suitable for reclaiming is critical to improving our overall reclamation performance. Left unmanaged, these fluid tailings could take centuries to be reclaimed.
All forms of mining – whether coal, gold, uranium or potash – produce tailings. Mining operators must determine how to safely and effectively manage this byproduct. With the scale of oil sands mining operations, the challenge is all the more daunting.
Oil sands tailings are the remaining sand, water, clay, silt and residual hydrocarbons left after the majority of the hydrocarbons are recovered from the oil sands during our water-based extraction process. Fluid tailings are clay particles that do not bind to the trafficable tailings sand. Fluid tailings represent less than 10% of the total mineral from the oil sands.
Suncor Base plant has a holistic approach to tailings management called Tailings Reduction Operations (TRO™). TRO™ includes:
- Fluid Transfer and Storage Systems
- Sand Dumps
- Dedicated Disposal Areas
As mining operations expanded, fluid tailings volumes increased. With the implementation of TRO™ in 2010, fluid tailings volumes at site have remained steady. Suncor currently has about 300 million cubic metres of fluid tailings.
The Suncor-operated Fort Hills project is targeting first oil by the end of 2017. This mine is leveraging the operating experience of the other mining operators through Suncor’s involvement in COSIA. Fort Hills plans to treat fluid tailings from the start of operations with extraction thickeners and tailings sand placement activities to reduce the amount of fluid tailings created and minimize further treatment. Tailings operations will begin with an out-of-pit tailings area with plans to transition to below-grade tailings treatment once space is made available in the first mining area. The peak fluid tailings inventory at Fort Hills is expected to be only 126 million cubic metres. This represents a step-change in fluid tailings management compared to industry demonstrated inventories.
Oil sands tailings management
Over the past seven years, Suncor’s approach has allowed us to surface reclaim a tailings pond (Wapisiw Lookout) and make another one trafficable through the use of coke-capping technology. We are in the process of converting another one to a dedicated disposal area.
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