Authors: Cossey, HL; Kaminsky, H; Ulrich, AC

Open access courtesy of:


Cite As:
Cossey, HL, Kaminsky, H & Ulrich, AC 2022, 'Evaluating the long-term behaviour and viability of an oil sands tailings management and reclamation strategy', in AB Fourie, M Tibbett & G Boggs (eds), Mine Closure 2022: 15th International Conference on Mine Closure, Australian Centre for Geomechanics, Perth, pp. 307-320,

Download citation as:   ris   bibtex   endnote   text   Zotero

Surface mining of oil sands ore in Alberta, Canada, has generated over a billion cubic metres of waste, known as fluid fine tailings (FFT). FFT are a mixture of fine-grained solids (silt and clay), water, dissolved salts, and organic compounds. Eventually, FFT must be reclaimed and integrated into mine closure landscapes. One proposed method of FFT management and reclamation is through end pit lakes (EPLs), which are engineered water bodies that consist of a thick layer of FFT capped with water. FFT deposited in EPLs may also be treated with a coagulant (alum) and polymer flocculant (polyacrylamide, PAM) to improve tailings dewatering and cap water quality. Theoretically, EPLs are a suitable reclamation strategy because the water cap develops into habitat for an aquatic ecosystem while the FFT slowly dewaters over time. However, successful use of EPLs in the oil sands has not been demonstrated, and knowledge gaps exist surrounding the long-term behaviour of EPLs and their viability as an FFT management and reclamation strategy. Uncertainties surrounding EPL behaviour include the flux of salts and organics into the water cap, biogeochemical cycling processes, which can generate sulfide species and greenhouse gases, and the environmental fate of PAM. To address these knowledge gaps, aging experiments are being performed in 1 L and 19 L EPL columns containing untreated or treated (with alum and PAM) FFT and a water cap. Aging is simulated in the columns through higher temperature and carbon amendments. Results to date show that fluxes of salts into the water caps are generally consistent with consolidation trends and are similar in columns containing either untreated or treated FFT. Compared to untreated FFT, treated FFT has undergone more extensive sulfur cycling, as evidenced by higher sulfate reduction rates and higher sulfide species concentrations.

Keywords: mine waste management, end pit lakes, biogeochemistry, sulfur cycling, consolidation, salt fluxes, polyacrylamide

Alberta Energy Regulator 2021, State of Fluid Tailings Management for Mineable Oil Sands, 2020, Alberta Energy Regulator, Calgary.
ASTM 2017, Standard Test Method for Particle-Size Distribution (Gradation) of Fine-grained Soils Using the Sedimentation (Hydrometer) D7928-17, ASTM International, West Conshohocken.
Amoako, KA 2020, Geotechnical Behaviour of Two Novel Polymer Treatments of Oil Sands Fine Tailings, MSc Thesis, University of Alberta, Edmonton.
Baotian, W, Shuaijie, G & Funhai, Z 2013, ‘Research on deposition and consolidation behavior of cohesive sediment with settlement column experiment’, European Journal of Environmental and Civil Engineering, vol. 17, pp. s144–s157.
Brown, LD & Ulrich, AC 2015, ‘Oil sands naphthenic acids: a review of properties, measurement, and treatment’, Chemosphere, vol. 127, pp. 276–290.
Burkus, Z, Wheler, J & Pletcher, S 2014, GHG Emissions from Oil Sands Tailings Ponds: Overview and Modelling Based on Fermentable Substrates. In Part I: Review of Tailings Pond Facts and Practices, Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, Edmonton.
Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance 2021, Pit Lakes: A Surface Mining Perspective, Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance, Calgary.
Clark, MG, Drewitt, GB & Carey, SK 2021, ‘Energy and carbon fluxes from an oil sands pit lake’, Science of the Total Environment, vol. 752, article no. 141966.
Chalaturnyk, RJ, Scott, JD & Özüm, B 2002, ‘Management of oil sands tailings’, Petroleum Science and Technology, vol. 20,
pp. 1025–1046.
Comiti, J & Renaud, M 1989, ‘A new model for determining mean structure parameters of fixed beds from pressure drop measurements, with application to beds packed with parallelelpipedal particles’, Chemical Engineering Science, vol. 44, pp. 1539–1545.
Cossey, HL, Batycky, AE, Kaminsky, H & Ulrich, AC 2021a, ‘Geochemical stability of oil sands tailings in mine closure landforms’, Minerals, vol. 11, article no. 830.
Cossey, HL, Kuznetsov, PV & Ulrich, AC 2021b, ‘Evaluating the biogeochemical and consolidation behavior of oil sands end pit lakes with accelerated aging’, in NA Beier, GW Wilson & DC Sego (eds), Proceedings of 25th International Conference on Tailings and Mine Waste, University of Alberta Geotechnical Center & Oil Sands Tailings Research Facility, Edmonton, pp. 793–802.
Dompierre, KA, Lindsay, MBJ, Cruz-Hernández, P & Halferdahl, GM 2016, ‘Initial geochemical characteristics of fluid fine tailings in an oil sands end pit lake’, Science of the Total Environment, vol. 556, pp. 196–206.
Foght, JM, Gieg, LM & Siddique, T 2017, ‘The microbiology of oil sands tailings: past, present, future’, FEMs Microbiology Ecology, vol. 93, article no. fix034.
Gao, YF, Zhang, Y, Zhou, Y & Li, D 2016, ‘Effects of column diameter on settling behavior of dredged slurry in sedimentation experiments’, Marine Georesources & Geotechnology, vol. 34, pp. 431–439.
Gee, K, Poon, HY, Hashisho, Z & Ulrich, AC 2017, ‘Effect of naphtha diluent on greenhouse gases and reduced sulfur compounds emissions from oil sands tailings’, Science of the Total Environment, vol. 598, pp. 916–924.
Government of Alberta 2018, Environmental Quality Guidelines for Alberta Surface Water, Alberta Environment and Parks, Water Branch, Edmonton.
Government of Alberta, 2022, Government of Alberta, Edmonton, viewed 18 March 2022,
Jessen, GL, Chen, LX, Mori, JF, Colenbrander Nelson, TE, Slater, GF, Lindsay, MBJ, … Warren, LA 2022, ‘Alum addition triggers hypoxia in engineered pit lake’, Microorganisms, vol. 10, article no. 510.
Kaminsky, H 2014, ‘Demystifying the methylene blue index’, Proceedings of the 4th International Oil Sands Tailings Conference, University of Alberta Geotechnical Center & Oil Sands Tailings Research Facility, Banff.
Li, Y, Kaminsky, H, Gong, XY, Sun, YS., Ghuzi, M & Sadighian, A 2021a, ‘What affects dewatering performance of high density slurry?’, Minerals, vol. 11, article no. 761.
Li, Y, Kaminsky, H, Romero, C, Gong, XY, Ghuzi, M & Tacas, J 2021b, ‘Assessing dewatering performance of treated fluid fine tailings with a bench-scale filter press’, in NA Beier, GW Wilson & DC Sego (eds), Proceedings of 25th International Conference on Tailings and Mine Waste, University of Alberta Geotechnical Center & Oil Sands Tailings Research Facility, Edmonton,
pp. 862–872.
Li, Y, Kaminsky, H, Sadighian, A, Sun, YS, Murphy, F, Gong, XY, Ghuzi, M & Rima, U 2022, ‘Impact of chemical and physical treatments on freeze-thaw dewatering of fluid fine tailings’, Cold Regions Science and Technology, vol. 193, article no. 103385.
Monaghan, J, Richards, LC, Vandergrift, GW, Hounjet, LJ, Stoyanov, SR, Gill, CG & Krogh, ET 2021, ‘Direct mass spectrometric analysis of naphthenic acids and polycyclic aromatice hydrocarbons in waters impacted by diluted bitumen and conventional crude oil’, Science of the Total Environment, vol. 765, article no. 144206.
Pavlostathis, SG & Zhuang, P 1991, ‘Effect of temperature on the development of anaerobic cultures from a contaminated subsurface soil’, Environmental Technology, vol. 12, pp. 679–687.
Ramos-Padrón, E, Bordenave, S, Lin, S, Bhaskar, IM, Dong, X, Sensen, CW, Fournier, J, Vourdouw, G & Gieg, LM 2011, ‘Carbon and sulfur cycling by microbial communities in a gypsum-treated oil sands tailings pond’, Environmental Science & Technology, vol. 45, pp. 439–446.
Reid, ML & Warren, LA 2016, ‘S reactivity of an oil sands composite tailings deposit undergoing reclamation wetland construction’, Journal of Environmental Management, vol. 166, pp. 321–329.
Ripmeester, MJ & Duford, DA 2019, ‘Method for routine “naphthenic acids fraction compounds” determination in oil sands process affected water by liquid-liquid extraction in dichloromethane and Fourier-Transform Infrared Spectroscopy’, Chemosphere, vol. 233, pp. 687–696.
Rundle, KI, Sharaf, MS, Stevens, D, Kamunde, C & van der Heuvel, MR 2018, ‘Oil sands derived naphthenic acids are oxidative uncouplers and impair electron transport in isolated mitochondria’, Environmental Science & Technology, vol. 765,
pp. 10810–10811.
Sentenac, P, Lynch, RJ & Bolton, MD 2001, ‘Measurement of a side-wall boundary effect in soil columns using fibre-optics sensing’, International Journal of Physical Modelling in Geotechnics, vol. 4, pp. 35–41.
Siddique, T, Fedorak, PM & Foght, JM 2006, ‘Biodegradation of short-chain n-alkanes in oil sands tailings under methanogenic conditions’, Environmental Science & Technology, vol. 40, pp. 5459–5464.
Siddique, T, Fedorak, PM, Mackinnon, MD & Foght, JM 2007, ‘Metabolism of BTEX and naphtha compounds to methane in oil sands tailings’, Environmental Science & Technology, vol. 41, pp. 2350–2356.
Siddique, T, Kuznetsov, P, Kuznetsova, A, Li, C, Young, R, Arocena, JM & Foght, JM 2014a, ‘Microbially-accelerated consolidation of oil sands tailings. Pathway II: solid phase biogeochemistry’, Frontiers in Microbiology, vol. 5, article no. 107.
Siddique, T, Kuznetsov, P, Kuznetsova, A, Arkell, N, Young, R, Li, C, Guigard, S, Underwood, E & Foght, JM 2014b, ‘Microbiallyaccelerated consolidation of oil sands tailings. Pathway I: changes in porewater chemistry’, Frontiers in Microbiology, vol. 5, article no. 106.
Siddique, T, Mohamad Shahimin, MF, Zamir, S, Semple, K, Li, C & Foght, JM 2015, ‘Long-term incubation reveals methanogenic biodegradation of C5 and C6 iso-alkanes in oil sands tailings’, Environmental Science & Technology, vol. 49, pp. 14732–14739.
Siddique, T, Penner, T, Semple, K & Foght, JM 2011, ‘Anaerobic biodegradation of longer-chain n-alkanes coupled to methane production in oil sands tailings’, Environmental Science & Technology, vol. 45, pp. 5892–5899.
Siddique, T, Semple, K, Li, C & Foght, JM 2020, ‘Methanogenic biodegradation of iso-alkanes and cycloalkanes during long-term incubation with oil sands tailings’, Environmental Pollution, vol. 258, article no. 113768.
Small, CC, Cho, S, Hashisho, Z & Ulrich, AC2015, ‘Emissions from oil sands tailings ponds: Review of tailings pond parameters and emission estimates’, Journal of Petroleum Science and Engineering, vol. 127, pp. 490–501.
Stasik, S, Loick, N, Knöller, K, Weisener, C & Wendt-Potthoff, K 2014, ‘Understanding biogeochemical gradients of sulfur, iron and carbon in an oil sands tailings pond’, Chemical Geology, vol. 382, pp. 44–53.
Stasik, S & Wendt-Potthoff, K 2014, ‘Interaction of microbial sulphate reduction and methanogenesis in oil sands tailings ponds’, Chemosphere, vol. 103, pp. 59–66.
Syncrude Canada Ltd 2020, 2019 Mildred Lake Tailings Management Report, Syncrude Canada Ltd, Fort McMurray.
Syncrude Canada Ltd 2021, 2021 Pit Lake Monitoring and Research Report (Base Mine Lake Demonstration Summary: 2021-2020), Syncrude Canada Ltd, Fort McMurray.
Tedford, E, Halferdahl, G, Pieters, R & Lawrence, GA 2019, ‘Temporal variations in turbidity in an oil sands pit lake’, Environmental Fluid Mechanics, vol. 19, pp. 457–473.
Warren, LA, Kendra, KE, Brady, AL & Slater, GF 2016, ‘Sulfur biogeochemistry of an oil sands composite tailings deposit’, Frontiers in Microbiology, vol. 6, pp. 1–14.
White, KB & Liber, K 2018, ‘Early chemical and toxicological risk characterization of inorganic constituents in surface water from the Canadian oil sands first large-scale end pit lake’, Chemosphere, vol. 211, pp. 745–757.
White, KB & Liber, K 2020, ‘Chronic toxicity of surface water from a Canadian oil sands end pit lake to the freshwater invertebrates Chironomus dilutus and Ceriodaphnia dubia’, Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, vol. 78, pp. 439–450.
Wilson, GW, Kabwe, LK, Beier, NA & Scott, JD 2018, ‘Effect of various treatments on consolidation of oil sands fluid fine tailing’, Canadian Geotechnical Journal, vol. 55, pp. 1059–1066.
Wong, M, An, D, Caffrey, SM, Soh, J, Dong, X, Sensen, CW, Oldenburg, TBP, Larter, SR & Voordouw, G 2015, ‘Roles of thermophiles and fungi in bitumen degradation in mostly cold oil sands outcrops’, Applied and Environmental Microbiology, vol. 81, pp. 6825–6838.

© Copyright 2022, Australian Centre for Geomechanics (ACG), The University of Western Australia. All rights reserved.
Please direct any queries or error reports to