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Canada to make lakes from oil sands

| Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013, 7:03 p.m.

Canada is blessed with 3 million lakes, more than any country on Earth — and it may soon start manufacturing new ones. They're just not the kind that typically attract anglers or tourists.

The oil sands industry is in the throes of a major expansion, powered by $19 billion a year in investments. Companies including Shell and Exxon's affiliate Imperial Oil are running out of room to store the contaminated water that is a byproduct of the process used to turn bitumen, a highly viscous form of petroleum, into diesel and other fuels.

By 2022, they will be producing so much of the stuff that a month's output of wastewater could turn an area the size of New York's Central Park into a toxic reservoir 11 feet deep.

Energy companies have drawn up plans that would transform northern Alberta into the largest man-made lake district on Earth. Several firms have obtained permission from provincial authorities to flood abandoned tar sand mines with a mix of tailings and fresh water.

This summer, Syncrude began filling in a mine 30 miles north of Fort McMurray. Toxic slurry is being topped with fresh water from a dam to a depth of 16 feet, the level required to force tailings particles to remain at the bottom, according to Cheryl Robb, a company spokeswoman.

She says that in trials involving test ponds, Syncrude's scientists discovered naturally occurring microbes in tailings that help break down some of the pollutants. The reservoirs eventually developed ecosystems, including insects, amphibians and fish. But the largest test pond was 0.015 of a square mile, roughly 1200th the size of Syncrude's lake.

“The big question we have is how long will it take before the water is clean, how long is it going to take before the littoral zones develop and the shoreline vegetation builds up?” Robb says. “But we're confident in the technology.”

Green groups are alarmed. The industry's spotty environmental record drew global attention in 2008 when 1,600 ducks died in a tailings pond belonging to Syncrude. Provincial authorities introduced regulations the next year governing the storage of fluid waste from oil sands.

A June report from Alberta's energy regulator, though, said several companies are not meeting the more stringent targets.

“There's no way to tell how the ecology of these lakes will evolve over time,” says Jennifer Grant, director of oil sands at Pembina. “It's all guesswork at this point. It's reckless.”

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