Is a legacy of toxic tailings in the cards for future generations of Canadians?

Oil companies have been mining Alberta’s oil sands for over four decades and in so doing have left behind a toxic liability that has reached epic proportions.
Every day hundreds of thousands of barrels of synthetic oil flow from the oil sands to markets in the United States and Canada. Before the oil can flow, the boreal forest is stripped from the land and tonnes of earth and sand, what the industry calls overburden, is moved aside. Then the ore is mined. Roughly two tonnes of ore is mined for every barrel of bitumen produced. The bitumen that eventually becomes oil is extracted from the ore with hot water and caustic soda. As can be expected, this process leaves behind vast amounts of waste, much of it in the form of a toxic sludge the consistency of yogurt.
The sludge is stored on the surface of the land in tailings lakes behind dikes as high as 90 metres.  For every barrel of bitumen extracted, 1.5 barrels of sludge, known as mature fine tailings (MFT), is left behind in the lakes.
The oil companies that operate the mines have failed to slow the growth of MFT. Although the companies have implemented various technologies to try to reclaim their waste, they have been unable to keep pace with the vast amounts of the MFT being produced. Oil companies continue to look for technical solutions while the toxic liability continues to grow.
Forty years of mining have left over 840 million cubic metres of MFT on the landscape, enough to fill the great pyramid of Giza more than 300 times, and the mines are scheduled to continue producing for at least another half century.
Effective government intervention could begin to remedy the problem. Governments should prevent oil sands companies from producing more toxic sludge until the legacy current inventory of MFT is well on its way to being eliminated.
If the oil companies that produce mature fine tailings fail to eliminate this serious and continuously growing environmental and economic liability, it will pass to future generations of Canadians to remedy, a potential outcome that would be both irresponsible and unjust.
Read more about the problem of oil sands tailings in the WWF-Canada report Tailings, A Lasting Oil Sands Legacy.
Aerial view of Syncrude Aurora mine and tailings pond north of Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. The Alberta Tar Sands are the largest deposits of their kind in the world and their production is the single largest contributor to Canada's greenhouse gas emissions. © Jiri Rezac / WWF-UK © Jiri Rezac / WWF-UK