Tailings Plans Approved; Alberta Premier Wants Wet Tailings Ponds Eliminated

[Daily News] A day after Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach said wet tailings ponds should be eliminated, the Energy Resources Conservation Board gave conditional approval for plans by the Fort Hills Oil Sands Project and Syncrude Canada Ltd. with dates for construction, use and closure of fluid tailings ponds.

The tailings plans are the first of those submitted to the ERCB by six oilsands operators in September 2009. Under Directive 74, operators are required to prepare tailings plans and report on tailings ponds annually, reduce fluid tailings through fines captured in dedicated disposal areas and convert fines into trafficable deposits which are ready for reclamation five years after deposits have ceased.

During a scrum on Thursday, the Alberta premier said he’s aiming to ensure tailings ponds are eliminated. He also said that Hollywood director James Cameron should come to see the development in northeastern Alberta after the Avatar director criticized the oilsands.

“He, unfortunately, perhaps was led to a conclusion without all of the information being presented,” he said. “We would be certainly happy to provide him with...additional information if he wants to visit Alberta.

“Our goal is to ensure that we eliminate tailings ponds. That’s what people are focusing on and that’s the direction we’re taking. It can’t be done overnight but we know that the technology is there to start that process and we’ll be doing that.

“We’re going to have to force, and when I say force, we’re going to get more aggressive in working with companies in...open pit mining to move to either dry tailings or develop that resource without wet tailings ponds,” Stelmach said when asked for a timeline for elimination. “It’s going to take an investment, there’s no doubt about it, but we just can’t talk about it, we want to show progress.”

When pressed again for a timeline, the premier said, “I can’t give you a definite one but I know that within a matter of a few years we should be able to get there.”

As for the newly approved tailings ponds, Fort Hills plans to operate one tailings pond with a tailings storage capacity of 322 million cubic metres, which will operate for approximately 22 years with a plan to dry tailings to a trafficable surface in compliance with the directive, the board said.

The ERCB has imposed two conditions focusing on technology testing and tailings management in its approval of the Fort Hills tailings plan. Suncor Energy Ltd., UTS Energy Corporation and Teck Limited are partners in the Fort Hills project.

The ERCB has placed six conditions on its approval for Syncrude’s Mildred Lake site, located about 40 kilometres northwest of Fort McMurray. The site currently deposits tailings in five tailings areas. These areas have a fluid fine tailings inventory of 430 million cubic metres and are scheduled to be returned to a trafficable surface in 2016, 2020 and 2023, with the Mildred Lake Settling Basin scheduled for return to a trafficable surface in 2060.

The board has placed six conditions on its approval for Syncrude’s Aurora North site, located about 80 kilometres northeast of Fort McMurray. The site currently operates a single tailings pond with a current fluid fine tailings inventory of 75 million cubic metres, which is scheduled to be returned to a trafficable surface in 2037. Syncrude is currently in the design stage of a composite tailings plant at Aurora and plans to have this plant operational and in compliance with the directive in 2014. Syncrude currently uses composite tailings technology to convert fluid tailings to a solid deposit.

The Syncrude plans as originally filed on Sept. 30, 2009, did not fully meet ERCB requirements, the board said, adding that subsequent consultations between Syncrude and the ERCB have seen significant improvements to the company’s plans. The ERCB has imposed conditions on Syncrude’s approval that will enable the company to meet and exceed directive requirements by 2014.

Syncrude has also proposed the addition of new technology to comply with the directive. To ensure its timely development, the ERCB requires that development and implementation milestones be adhered to, including a commercial demonstration plant for mature fine tailings centrifugation (which separates tailings to water, clay and silt) be in operation by August 2012. Syncrude must also construct and start up a full-scale supplemental tailings plant by June 2015.

ERCB staff is reviewing tailings plans submitted by Albian Sands Energy Inc., Canadian Natural Resources Limited, Imperial Oil Resources Ventures Limited, Shell Canada Inc. and Suncor. The next tailings pond slated to be returned to a trafficable surface is Suncor’s Pond 1, which expected to happen by the end of this year.

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