November 2015

Editor's letter

Reflections on the tailings pond

By Ryan Bergen

Ryan BergenFour years ago, Canada hosted the annual international Mine Closure Conference. This was the first time the event had been hosted in Canada, and there was a sense of urgency. At the time, Directive 074, an initiative spearheaded by Alberta’s Energy Resources Conservation Board to stem the flow of fine tailings into the ponds at oil sands mines, was still young; its ambitious targets meant to reclaim the land covered by the tailing were in force; and the story of the hundreds of ducks drowned in muddy tailings was still fresh in the public’s mind.

At that conference, consulting engineer Andy Robertson presented on the mounting concern that the growing number of tailings impoundments present to their surroundings and, subsequently, to the mining industry. His message: if we continue to build larger mines to extract lower grade ore and hold the resultant tailings behind correspondingly massive dams, then the risk of catastrophic failure will skyrocket. Robertson’s presentation was impressive because it was so matter-of-fact.

The Mount Polley dam failure in 2014 has refreshed the urgency and, as contributing editor Eavan Moore details in “Muddy Waters,” engineers, mining companies and regulators are under pressure to make changes, but are uncertain of what exactly those changes ought to be. At the same time, others are pushing for a rebalancing of the scales that weigh the risk of failure against cost of preventing it. The result would be a more thorough accounting of the financial and social impact of a tailings dam failure and, likely, a greater incentive for some projects to invest in technologies that could cut the risk of such an event.

With that in mind, I should note that Alberta regulators scrapped Directive 074 earlier this year. Oil sands operators had consistently failed to hit the targets the directive, created in 2009 in part as a response to the bird kill in the tailings pond the previous year, had set. The technical challenges proved to be more complex than the policy and its timelines allowed. A draft of new provincial guidelines is imminent.

Today, with many new developments on hold, is a critical opportunity to dedicate the time and energy that the challenge of tailings management and its regulation requires without tight deadline pressure. In policy making as in engineering, poor design will result in failure.

Ryan Bergen

Mining under the microscope

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     Muddy waters - cover story
     Greenland - special report
    No to uranium mining - news
    Q & A - Zeljka Pokrajcic
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