Left: the site prior to reclamation; right: the reclaimed tailings pond includes wetlands for waterfowl and an array of grasses, trees and shrubs | Photo courtesy of Suncor
"I think we slayed a dragon,” says Matt LeBlanc, general manager, Reclamation Mine Operations Oil Sands, Suncor Energy. “A lot of people thought we couldn’t
reclaim an oil sands tailings pond.” But proof to the contrary is taking root in the oil patch north of Fort McMurray. There, among hundreds of thousands
of trees and shrubs, animals now inhabit what had been a tailings pond for the last 43 years.
The very first tailings pond
Suncor’s Pond 1, adjacent to the Athabasca River in northeastern Alberta, covers 220 hectares (about 2.2 square kilometres). It was part of the first
commercial-scale oil sands operation in Canada, commissioned in 1966 when it was owned by Great Canadian Oil Sands Limited, a subsidiary of the Sun Oil
Company, and now owned by Suncor.
Reclamation of the pond dyke walls began in the late 1960s when very little was known about how to go about planting a sustainable vegetation cover on the
dyke’s surface. At the time, reclamation goals were considerably more modest, and environmental regulations were in their infancy.
Leblanc says that 35 years ago no one really knew the steps to reclaim a tailings pond. “One of the first jobs I had in 1976 was standing in Pond 1 and
blocking up a tailings line. I never expected to be back reclaiming it.”
After decades in operation, the pond is now being closed in a highly regulated environment with a substantial knowledge base of reclamation techniques,
well-defined reclamation goals and clear end land use targets. With nine existing ponds that cover 31.8 square kilometres, the reclamation of Pond 1 is a
monumental step forward for Suncor as it begins to decommission its ponds.
Learning on the fly
The initial design of the Pond 1 tailings storage facility consisted of a 12-metre high retention dyke built over Tar Island. The dykes were constructed to
contain the sand and water tailings released from the bitumen removal process. Initially, overburden from the mining operation was used in the
construction. It soon became obvious that using tailings sand with an overburden core was a more appropriate method of building the dam enclosure. “This
allowed us to safely build the pond higher,” says LeBlanc. “It now stands 91 metres above the river.”