There's a big mess of polluted water, soil, salt, chemicals and oil in Northern Alberta, and it's getting bigger by the hour. Alberta's tar sands industry has offered up a report so absurd it would be funny if it didn't refer to such a serious issue. The report is the industry's first stab at a permanent solution to its waste problem: "water capping".
The basic idea of "water capping" is to dig four-kilometre-wide pits, pump toxic tailings into the bottom of them and then run fresh water over the tailings, creating a "cap" of water over the waste. When it's all done, it's a brand new lake!
Water capping is not to be confused with the current practice of dumping naphthenic acids, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, salts and other "compounds of concern" into huge tailings ponds.
The proposal put forward this week would have these toxins moved from the tailings ponds into 30 permanent artificial lakes spread over 2,500 square kilometres in Northern Alberta.
This is no passing fancy; the industry-funded report contains 434-pages of tragicomic proposals calling for further engineering of landscapes, including redirecting natural creeks and wetlands into these artificial, toxin-filled ponds.
Like all bad ideas, this one comes with its own three-word acronym: "End Pit Lakes (EPL)". Somehow, I can't imagine any of the engineers or oil executives behind this report building a cottage on an EPL as a place to spend summer months fishing and swimming with loved ones.
The haphazard way industry is grasping at solutions to deal with the billions of litres of toxic water raises the question, "Why are these companies allowed to make such a mess without knowing beforehand how they will deal with it?"
The existing tailings ponds are already causing serious environmental damage. Four years ago, 1,600 ducks died after landing on another tailings pond, with Syncrude paying fines of approximately $3 million. Last week, a crown prosecutor in Alberta decided not to lay charges against Syncrude and Suncor after 550 birds died from landing in their tailings ponds during a storm. "Sometimes, incidents happen," said Alberta premier Alison Redford.
Alberta's oil patch is a long way from figuring out how to clean up its mess. Such preposterous ideas as "water capping" show that industry will have to be pushed much harder to develop realistic solutions.