Decades of research paying off

Base Mine Lake water technology in oil sands

Syncrude Canada Ltd.’s Research and Development team delivers innovative solutions to oil sands industry issues – its work on water-capped tailings technology may be the team’s largest contribution yet. 

The company’s Base Mine Lake (BML), is the oil sands industry’s first full scale demonstration of water-capping tailings to form a lake. After Syncrude completed mining of its West Mine in 1995, the mine pit was partially filled with fluid tailings (a mixture of clay, fine solids, oil sands process water and residual bitumen). in 2012, the tailings were then capped with a layer of fresh and oil sands process affected water. 

Water Capped Tailings Technology has been an important component of Syncrude’s Research and Development portfolio since the early 1980s, making it the most researched tailings technology in the industry. 

Research began with laboratory experiments and modelling of tailings behaviour. It continued with a series of field-scale test ponds. Results from several decades of work gave Syncrude confidence to pursue the technology at full-scale. After Base Mine Lake was commissioned in 2012, a multi-university, interdisciplinary Research and Monitoring Program was implemented year-round. 

The Program tracks trends across a range of physical, chemical and biological characteristics of the lake and compares them to key performance indicators. This work is providing a body of scientific evidence that demonstrates that Base Mine Lake is on a trajectory to become permanently integrated into the reclaimed landscape. 

“With decades of extensive research and monitoring as our foundation, we are confident the water-capped tailings technology demonstration will be successful,” says Trevor Finlayson, Senior Associate – Geology, Regulatory & Lease Development at Syncrude. 

Results are shared widely with a variety of stakeholders, including local First Nations and Métis community members. In the summer of 2019, an on-site walking trail was constructed to allow access to Base Mine Lake and its reclaimed shoreline, giving visitors a first-hand view of reclamation of a former oil sands mine.

“The new trail allows us to physically show people how the lake is progressing rather than just talk about it,” explains Carla Wytrykush, Reclamation and Closure Research ecologist at Syncrude. “We’re able to give demonstrations of our research and monitoring practices right in front of visitors, and show them the plants and animals living in the lake. Showing a net full of beetles, dragonfly larvae and other insects pulled from the lake bottom is impactful. They can see for themselves how well the lake is doing.”

Syncrude’s goal is to evolve the lake into a landscape feature that connects to reclaimed forests and wetlands in the final closure landscape. “Our ability to successfully prove this tailings management technology will be instrumental for the oil sands mining industry, as it will benefit all of the operators on their reclamation journey,” Trevor says.