Canada's tar sands are an unequivocal environmental nightmare, ravaging the landscape and spewing billions of gallons of toxic water into the world. Now, oil companies are claiming they've figured out what to do with all that poisonous water: Turn Alberta into one giant man-made lake district.
Bloomberg has the story of Syncrude Canada, one of the major operators in the Tar Sands, which is currently embarking on a massive experiment called Base Mine Lake. "Lake" is a bit of a misnomer: Base Mine Lake is actually a former pit-mine that Syncrude is using to store the toxic water produced when bitumen is turned into diesel. What's the plan for protecting the surrounding world from this 3,000-acre pit of sludge water?
Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada. AP Photo/Jeff McIntosh.
By letting it "clean" itself. Syncrude's scientists say they've spent two decades proving that "naturally-occurring microbes" in the water can actually break down the toxins and eventually support life. By covering the toxic water in 16 feet of clean water, they'll create a situation where the microbes can work undisturbed. So, in theory, this massive tailings pond — the term for lakes created by refuse from mines — will ultimately rehabilitate on its own.
Environmental rights groups are questioning the empirical evidence at hand, pointing out that Base Mine Lake is 200 times larger than the largest tailings pond that the process has been tested on. And as Edmonton Journal points out, the approach is not without risks — based, for example, on the fact that thousands of ducks who touched down in one tailings pond died in 2008. On the other hand, Syncrude has had some success rehabilitating other former pit mines. Either way, it's an experiment.
Bloomberg concludes with a chilling paragraph about how creating dozens of toxic lakes could affect the global ecosystem:
One big concern surrounding end-pit lakes is that the contaminated water will spread through the boreal ecosystem, the tract of trees and marshland that stretches around the top of the world from Canada to Russia and Scandinavia. Boreal forests store almost twice as much carbon as tropical forests.
Still, companies are betting big on the process, saying that Alberta will eventually become "the largest man-made lake district on earth." It'll be like Minnesota... If Minnesota's lakes could endanger the environmental health of the Northern Hemisphere. [Bloomberg]
Trucks carry loads of oil-laden sand after being loaded by huge shovels at the Albian Sands oils sands project in Ft. McMurray, Alberta, Canada. AP Photo/Jeff McIntosh.
Lead image: A settling pond in Ft. McMurray, Alberta, Canada, on Friday, August 5, 2005. AP Photo/Jeff McIntosh.