Mine water release 101: Everything you need to know

Mine water release

COSIA sat down with Water Director John Brogly to find out more about mine water release, an important future step in the reclamation of oil sands mines. A chemical engineer by profession, Brogly has been involved in innovative approaches to treating mine process-affected water since he joined COSIA in 2012, the year it was founded. Before we launch into the facts, let’s find out why he is so passionate about the topic.

Why is managing process water important to you?
I’m an engineer and this is what engineers do for a living. We make sure that for whatever we’re working on, we minimize the effects on the environment. It doesn’t matter what it is, it’s a basic part of what we do, and we love doing it!

What is mine water release?
Simply put, mine water release is the release of water from oil sands mining operations into the surrounding environment after it has been treated to ensure it can be released safely with no harm to the environment. Virtually every industry on earth releases treated water to the environment, that’s a very normal thing to do. We use water every day at home and in our offices, the water is used, then treated and released. Industry has developed ways to do the same for water from mining operations.

Don’t oil sands companies already release water?
Yes. Several streams are approved for release including run-off water outside of active mining areas, groundwater and upgrader process water. However, at this time there is no approved release for treated process-affected water and saline ground water. Currently, the Alberta government is working to develop requirements that will allow for the safe release of these waters.

What happens to the process water if it’s not released?
Process water is reused and recycled as much as possible in mining operations and then stored safely in facilities called tailings ponds. Mines are very efficient at how they use fresh water, recycling approximately 80 to 85 per cent. However, this results in a build-up of salts in the water like sodium chloride (table salt) and sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) that can significantly delay reclaiming mine sites once mining operations cease.

What compounds in mine water need to be treated?
The compounds in process-affected water on all mine sites that are potentially harmful to aquatic life are the naturally-occurring organic materials in bitumen that are soluble in water, usually referred to as naphthenic acids. Now, thanks to major scientific advances along with lab and pilot testing, we have the ability to treat process water effectively so that it passes all standard toxicity tests.

How is the water treated?
We have dozens of different ways to treat the water to make it safe to release. In fact, oil sands process water is one of the most heavily researched areas of the mining industry. Through COSIA alone, we’ve shared 273 water technologies and currently have 86 active water projects at a cost of $319 million. This is big, important research where Canada has established a reputation as a world leader. You can read more about the specific innovation in water treatment in the Water section of COSIA’s website and in our research reports.

Why is it important to release treated water?
Releasing treated water enables oil sands mine operators to reduce the need for water storage (decreasing their environmental footprint), reclaim tailings areas (the storage for leftover mining materials) sooner, reclaim mine sites faster and meet stringent reclamation and closure regulations in a timely manner. It’s a government requirement to reclaim mine sites in the oil sands to a boreal forest ecosystem that includes aquatic features. Mine water release is a key component in that reclamation.

Where will the treated water go?
In most cases, the treated water will be safely released into the Athabasca River or its tributaries. Any water released will meet release criteria to protect both the environment and human health. Each mine site will need to meet specific requirements prior to releasing treated water. Site specific and regional monitoring will ensure regulatory compliance and check that the controls in place are working. 

What is the timing on mine water release?
Regulations exist for other industries that release water, but that has not been the case for the oil sands. Now, with some mining projects getting on in years, the government is working to establish policy and regulations that will ensure any release of treated water from oil sands mines is done safely, with an intent to have such in place by 2023. COSIA is supporting this work by contributing to a growing body of research and science in this regard. 

How can you be sure it will be safe to release mine water?
This is done safely by almost every industry in the world in essentially the same manner.  End-of-pipe limits for any treated mine water release are set by Alberta Government and the Alberta Energy Regulator.  The operator releasing treated water monitors the discharge to ensure it meets these limits.  In addition, local monitoring ensures there are no detrimental and/or unexpected effects in the immediate area and downstream of the release.  Lastly, regional monitoring, in this case, conducted by the government run Oil Sands Monitoring program, is in place to detect any unexpected changes in the region.

Interested in other topics like these? Check out:
•    Water management 101: Using water wisely 
•    Top 10 facts about pit lakes 
•    Wastewater to clean water 

Want to learn more about Pit Lakes? See our new pit lake guide
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