August 2011

Talking tailings

Mine Closure conference comes to oil country

By Dan Zlotnikov

Pond 1 surface construction involved covering it with a layer of soil 50 centimetres deep. About 65,000 truckloads of soil were used | Courtesy of Suncor

To understand the life cycle of tailings, researchers at Syncrude Canada Ltd. established settling columns at the University of Alberta to learn how much time the mature fine tailings (MFT) produced by bitumen extraction from the oil sands would require to settle, thus allowing the water to be extracted. It now has been more than a quarter of a century since the experiment began and the results are still not clear-cut. Major challenges such as this facing the Canadian mining industry motivated Les Sawatsky, engineering division director at Golder Associates, to bring the Mine Closure 2011 conference to Alberta.

As chairman of the event, Sawatsky, who has a background in water management, also ensured that one of the major topics of the conference will be the remediation of tailings ponds. “There is a great deal of mine closure research being conducted all over the world,” he says, “and Canadian mining companies should have better access to the findings, so that the results of research by others and successful practices at other mines can be applied to mines in Canada.  Equally, there is a great deal of information and successes that Canadian mining companies can share with their counterparts elsewhere in the world,” he adds.

Tailings in the crosshairs

Delegates and speakers at the conference will include the “who’s who” of the oil sands sector, including Jean-Michel Gires, president and CEO of Total E&P Canada. Total’s Joslyn operation is not set to go into operation for another six years, but reclamation is a critical issue for the company right now. “If you want to recreate lowlands and wetlands, and want them to be sustainable and ecologically productive,” says Gires, “you had better understand what you’re after, so you can restore them correctly and progressively. This in-depth understanding of the issues, selection of the correct technologies and implementing them vigorously with enough knowledge is part of the challenge.”

Alan Fair, who until recently was manager of research and development at Syncrude and is currently executive director of the newly created Oil Sands Tailings Consortium (OSTC), has kept an eye on the MFT inside Syncrude’s settling columns. He has seen the research into tailings management and reclamation unfold and appreciates the scale of the challenge. “At the end of the day, it’s not going to be one single solution to dealing with that tailing suspension,” he says. “It will be a suite of technologies, and developing these technologies will be part of my role as executive director of the OSTC.”

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