Tar Sands Tailings: Alberta's Growing Toxic Legacy

NRDC and Environmental Defence Canada release "One trillion Litres of Toxic Waste and Growing: Alberta's Tailings Ponds" report detailing the enormous environmental, health and economic costs of the tar sands industry's growing toxic tailing ponds.
Credit: Photo by Rocky Kistner

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Canada’s Environmental Defence (ED) released the report “One Trillion Litres of Toxic Waste and Growing: Alberta’s Tailings Ponds” showing how decades of inaction by the province have led to an environmental and economic catastrophe of enormous proportions. Tar sands mining operations have generated over 250 billion gallons of toxic tailings – a poisonous brew of water, sand, silt, heavy metals and other petrochemical waste products – which they store in toxic lakes that cover an area greater than Manhattan and Boston combined. In addition to the releasing the tar sands tailings report, NRDC, ED and Daniel T’seleie of the K’ahsho Got’ine Dene First Nation have also requested the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) – the NAFTA environmental tribunal – to investigate whether the Canadian government is failing to enforce its Fisheries Act by allowing tar sands tailings to leak into Alberta water bodies.  

Cleaning these toxic lakes will be an expensive undertaking. According to some industry estimates cleaning the tar sands tailings will cost as much as $44.5 billion and reclaiming the land will cost another $6.8 billion. To put this liability in context, these costs exceed the $41.3 billion royalties the province of Alberta has received from its tar sands operations since 1969. Alberta has an opportunity to end this state of affairs and protect its future - but doing so will require the province to take action to 1) stop the further increase in tailings waste, 2) ensure that tailings are being treated at a faster rate than they are produced and 3) ensure that tar sands mining companies are bonded for the full liabilities of tailings cleanup. After decades of inaction, the time has come for Alberta to take the necessary steps to ensure that its citizens do not bear the ruinous environmental and economic legacy of the tar sands industry's tailings ponds. 

Tailings ponds include a significant number of toxic chemicals,including half  of the World Health Organization’s “ten chemicals of major public concern.” Unfortunately, a significant body of research has found that these toxins are not being fully contained by the tailings ponds. Research by the Canadian federal government has determined that toxic tailings are seeping into groundwater and the Athabasca River. An Environmental Defence analysis of industry data calculated that the ponds are leaking 11 million litres per day – equivalent to nearly 70,000 barrels - but noted that this data is likely conservative. Environment Canada scientists have highlighted research showing that a single pond can leak 6.5 million litres per day. Moreover a National Academy of Sciences study found that likely carcinogenic chemicals called Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) are evaporating from the ponds and being deposited in Alberta’s water systems at a rate that could be as high as from tailings seepage. The ponds also emit carbon dioxide and methane, and industry estimates that 10 per cent of tar sands greenhouse gas emissions come from tailings ponds.

As NRDC and Environment Defence Canada’s report details, studies show that leaks from these ponds are harming the health of communities that rely on local rivers, fish, and wildlife, such as First Nations living in Fort Chipewyan, located around 200 kilometers downstream from tar sands development sites. In addition to their significant health impacts, tailings ponds can be deadly to wildlife that confuse them with natural lakes and pose a constant threat of a catastrophic spill in the event of a dam breach. 

Every year, the toxic materials in tailings ponds increases. Because it takes hundreds of years for the particles in the ponds to settle to the bottom naturally, it is exceedingly difficult to clean them up. So the tailings ponds simply continue to expand. Today, Alberta's liquid tailings now make up more than 1.18 trillion liters of toxic waste - and continue to grow daily. 


Despite the growing threats posed by tailing ponds, the tar sands industry does not have any proven solutions to reclaiming them, and the Alberta government’s regulations around tailings ponds have not held companies responsible for the ponds’ clean-up. While the government of Alberta has acknowledged that tailings ponds have threatened the surrounding environment for nearly fifty years, the government has failed to implement effective regulations to address the growing environmental impact and economic liability of tar sands tailing ponds. Tar sands mining companies have responded to this lax regulatory regime by consistently failing to meet the tailings pond commitments promised in their project original applications. As this timeline shows, the growing problem of tar sands tailings was been fueled by a combination of lax regulations and a lack of enforcement. 

The government’s new requirements for industry, introduced in 2015 as the Tailings Management Framework (TMF), are not strong enough to protect communities and ecosystems. In July 2016 the Alberta Energy Regulator released Directive 085 to enforce the TMF required tar sands companies to submit plans that reduce tar sands tailings volumes as soon as possible and begin to increase reclamation efforts. However, a Pembina analysis of the plans the tar sands industry submitted would allow for tailings to increase for another two decades - with some operators proposing to take 70 years to reclaim landscapes after completing their operations. 

To effectively protect communities and wildlife, Alberta should reassess Directive 085 and require that companies have demonstrably effective reclamation technologies and enforceable plans to rapidly reduce tailings pond volumes. The laxity of the existing Directive is all the more concerning in light of the fact that Canadians, rather than industry, could be obliged to pay most of the ever-growing costs of cleaning up Alberta’s tailings ponds.

"Ninety-six percent of Albertans believe that companies working in the oil sands should be held financially liable for their operations' environmental impacts."

In order to protect communities in Alberta, the government should strengthen Directive 085 and ensure that regulations are stringent, binding, and effective. NRDC and Environmental Defense Canada are calling on the Alberta government to take these immediate steps to ensure that the province isn't left with a toxic environmental legacy and a crippling financial burden: 

  • Require an immediate reduction in tailings volumes. With tailings volumes making up more than 1 trillion litres of waste, it would be irresponsible to allow volumes to continue growing. Industry should be required to reduce these ponds’ footprint rather than engage in irresponsible tailings management.
  • Ensure that in existing tailings ponds, tailings are treated at a faster rate than they are produced. Across Alberta’s landscapes, toxic tailings ponds cover an area larger than Boston and Manhattan combined. In order to ensure that these areas will be reclaimed, tailings must be cleaned up at a faster rate than they are produced. Otherwise, Alberta faces a future of ever-growing tailings volumes.
  • Do not approve any new tailings ponds. Until industry demonstrates the ability and willingness to clean-up the tailings ponds it has already created, it would be reckless to approve new ponds.
  • Do not approve any new end pit lakes. Oil companies have not demonstrated that injecting toxic waste slurry and clean water into abandoned mines is a safe form of reclamation. Industry should be required to show that proposed solutions are effective and safe.
  • Bond companies for full liability of tailings clean up. Communities in Alberta, including First Nations, have suffered high pollution levels and the destruction of boreal and wildlife populations. It would be unjust and uneconomical for these same communities to have to pay to clean up after industry. Government policies must ensure that tar sands companies bear the full financial responsibility for the tailings ponds they have produced.