Suncor says it’s turning oilsands tailings pond into swan

EDMONTON — Suncor Energy says it has taken a big step toward transforming one of its ugly duckling oilsands tailings ponds into an environmentally benign swan.

EDMONTON — Suncor Energy says it has taken a big step toward transforming one of its ugly duckling oilsands tailings ponds into an environmentally benign swan.

The oilsands giant is to announce next week that it is the first company in Alberta to successfully reclaim a tailings pond. The 2.2-square-kilometre area has been filled in and landscaped with 630,000 newly planted trees, bushes and shrubs.

“Pond 1 is now going to be known as Wapisiw Lookout. That is a Cree word than means swan,” Suncor (TSX:SU) spokesman Dany Laferriere said Wednesday.

“This has not been done before. We have said that we could do it and this goes to show that reclaiming tailings ponds is possible and we are doing it.”

Suncor says it will continue developing the site over the next 10 to 15 years into a mixed forest with wetlands that can support wildlife, including waterfowl.

The company acknowledges that it has moved much of the toxic liquid tailings to some of the other eight ponds it operates in the region around Fort McMurray. The material is to be recycled for industrial use.

Oilsands watchers such as the Pembina Institute say work on Pond 1 represents progress. But the institute, which does policy research and provides education on climate change and energy issues, warns it is important not to overstate its significance until Suncor explains how it will deal with all of its liquid tailings, which contain toxic compounds, metals and acids.

“It’s akin to saying you cleaned up the bedroom by moving the waste materials to your living room, said Simon Dyer, a Pembina spokesman.

“It is a step, but if it is framed as evidence of the first successful reclamation of tailings, I think that would be overselling it at this point. We need more information to put this in its proper context.”

Suncor’s official announcement next Thursday will come just days before Canadian-born Hollywood director James Cameron is to tour the oilsands region in northeastern Alberta. Cameron is to meet with industry and government officials as well as critics, including First Nations leaders concerned about the environmental impact the oilsands are having on water and wildlife.

Cameron’s latest blockbuster hit “Avatar” had a strong environmental message, and at a UN forum in New York earlier this year, he called the oilsands a “black eye” on Canada’s image as an environmental leader.

Alberta’s tailings ponds have been in the international spotlight since 2008 when 1,600 ducks died after landing on one owned by Syncrude. The company was found guilty earlier this year of breaching Alberta and federal wildlife laws and is to be sentenced later this month.

Recent reports have suggested some tailings ponds have been leaking pollution into the Athabasca River and that governments have grossly underestimated the number of birds that die in the toxic waste.

Suncor and the Alberta government say next week’s announcement, which is to include provincial and federal government politicians, has been in the works for months and wasn’t timed to coincide with Cameron’s visit.

“The date was selected well in advance of any knowledge that Mr. Cameron would be coming to Alberta,” said Chris Bourdeau, a spokesman for Alberta Environment.

Alberta is making seats available to the media at cost on one of its government aircraft to get to Fort McMurray. Hotel rooms have also been reserved for reporters.

Bourdeau said Suncor’s achievement is a milestone even though the company is probably more than a decade away from the site being declared completely reclaimed. Such status would mean the area was clean enough to once again be considered Crown land.

Pond 1 was shut down in 2006 after operating for 40 years. The reclamation work included filling the pond with 30 million tonnes of reclaimed tailings sand covered with 1.2 million cubic metres of topsoil.

Suncor staff are assigned to monitor instruments that measure the amount of chemicals in the land and water and to ensure new trees and bushes flourish and attract wildlife. Perches have been built in part of the pond to attract birds.

The corporation says it has earmarked $1 billion to deal with its tailings ponds over the next two years.

“There is no doubt that there is still a lot to be done, but we are working hard at it. We are making progress,” Laferriere said.

“We see a lot of bad facts out there and publicity about the negative aspect. In this case, this is a very positive thing for industry that goes to show that we are working hard to decrease the environmental footprint of the oilsands and we are successful at doing it.”