27 December 2010

Tar Sands, Phosphorus, and Playing Chess with Gorillas

Posted by John Freeland

Athabasca River - Grand Rapids - 015
Athabasca River – Grand Rapids (Photo David Dodge, Pembina Institute)

Under Pressure
An unexpected surface discharge of brine has prompted a call for better groundwater mapping in Canada. Renowned limnologist David Schindler recently had this to say following the discovery of brine seeping up into a mined-out tar sand basin:

“Concerns over the poor mapping of groundwater in the area have been voiced for many years, and this is an example of the sort of nasty surprises that occur when we are not well prepared at the start.

“Environmental-impact assessments in the oilsands area are a joke — very short studies that are haphazardly done. This must change or more events like this are sure to follow.”

The brine seepage is happening at Shell Canada’s Muskeg River mine north of Fort McMurray in east-central Alberta. An official from the Energy Resources Conservation Board attributes the seep to a “geological anomaly” in a “naturally occurring concrete” at the bottom of the basin. They are now proposing to drill a few wells to get a better understanding of the geology.

The brine is too salty to use in Shell’s processing and is taking up space in what is slated to become a tailings pond, therefore, the brine, which continues to flow, will need to be treated or disposed of, somehow. The hope is that as the brine water level rises in the basin, it’s weight will eventually counter-balance the pressure in the brine aquifer that’s pushing to the surface.

What caused the sudden seepage event? My own personal “WAG” is pressurized brine erupted after fracturing of a confining layer, caused by pressure release, resulting from mining and removal of the tar sands. But who knows? The answer will likely come from an expensive and detailed groundwater investigation.

The Soap War
Those with some background in limnology, aquatic ecology, or wetlands will likely recall the major contribution made by David Schindler and others at the Experimental Lakes Area project in Ontario, particularly the whole-lake eutrophication experiments. At Lake 227, Schindler’s team settled an argument over productivity limitation, proving that it was phosphorus, not carbon, that caused eutrophication. A remarkable aerial photo of Lake 226, divided at the narrows by a nylon curtain and treated on one side with phosphorus fertilizer, became a famous picture during the fight to ban phosphate detergents.

Playing Chess with Gorillas
Schindler has recently turned his focus to tar sand mining impacts on the pristine Athabasca River watershed and the northern boreal forest. He presented evidence that pollution in the Athabasca River watershed is frequently air-borne. Others claim the toxin-laden dust is naturally occurring.

It’s not a “nice little project” for the seventy-year-old scientist:

“I am looking forward to someday seeing things done right so that I can relax and just do science. That’s where the fun is, it isn’t in hassling with politicians and that, which is to me rather like playing chess with a gorilla. The game is boring and you know you are going to win but you have got to be prepared to duck once in a while when they get angry and take a swing at you.”

Prior to reading up a bit about the Alberta tar sands, my impression of that part of the world resembled something like western North Dakota, but even colder and drier. It isn’t. The photo at the top of this post was taken near Fort McMurray, a major hub for tar sand mining. The vast boreal forest stretches across the land in what has to be some of the most beautiful landscape and best wildlife habitat in North America.

The United States imports more oil from Canada than any other country. What cost will our addiction to oil exact on our neighbors to the north?