Modelling the potential effects of Oil-Sands tailings pond breach on the water and sediment quality of the Lower Athabasca River
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Within the Oil-Sands industry in Alberta, Canada, tailings ponds are used as water recycling and tailings storage facilities (TSF) for mining activities. However, there could be possible circumstances under which a sudden breach of an embankment confining one of the TSFs may occur. Such a tailings pond breach would result in a sudden release of a huge volume of Oil Sands process-affected water (OSPW) and sediment slurry containing substantial amount of chemical constituents that would follow the downstream drainage paths and subsequently enter into the Lower Athabasca River (LAR). This study investigates the implications of OS tailings release on the water and sediment quality of the LAR by simulating the fate of sediment and associated chemicals corresponding to a hypothetical breach and release scenarios from a select set of tailings ponds using a two-dimensional hydrodynamic and constituent transport model. After predicting the total volume, time evolution and concentration of sediment and associated chemicals (metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and naphthenic acids (NAs)) reaching the LAR, the transport and deposition of these materials within the study reach is simulated. The results show that, depending on tailings release locations, between 40 and 70% of the sediment and associated chemicals get deposited onto the river bed of the 160 km study reach while the rest leaves the study domain during the first three days following the release event. These sediment/chemicals deposited during the initial spill may also have long-term effects on the water quality and aquatic ecosystem of the river and the downstream delta. However, care has to be taken in interpreting the results as further analysis has shown that the outcomes of such model simulations are very sensitive to the various underlying assumptions as well as the values assigned to some model parameters representing the physical properties of the tailings material.
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