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Canada's Tar Sands Oil Boom Yields Toxic Wastewater Lakes

Canada plans to build reservoirs filled with tar sands wastewater
A tar sands tailings pond at a mine facility near Fort McMurray, Alta., in September 2011
A tar sands tailings pond at a mine facility near Fort McMurray, Alta., in September 2011Photograph by Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press via AP Photo

Canada is blessed with 3 million lakes, more than any country on earth—and it may soon start manufacturing new ones. The oil sands industry is in the throes of a major expansion, powered by C$20 billion ($19 billion) a year in investments. Companies including Syncrude Canada, Royal Dutch Shell, and ExxonMobil 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 New York’s Central Park into a toxic reservoir 11 feet deep, according to the Pembina Institute, a nonprofit in Calgary that promotes sustainable energy.

To tackle the problem, energy companies have drawn up plans that would transform northern Alberta into the largest man-made lake district on earth. Several have obtained permission from provincial authorities to flood abandoned tar sand mines with a mix of tailings and fresh water. Syncrude began work this summer on Base Mine Lake, which when complete will measure 2,000 acres. It says the reservoir will eventually replicate a natural habitat, complete with fish and waterfowl. As many as 30 so-called end-pit lakes are planned, according to Alberta’s Cumulative Environment Management Association, a private-public partnership.