The symbiotic relationship of sediment and biofilm dynamics at the sediment water interface of oil sands industrial tailings ponds
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Within the oil sands industry, tailings ponds are used as a means of retaining tailings until a reclamation technology such as end pit lakes (EPLs) can be developed and optimized to remediate such tailings with a water cap (although dry-land strategies for tailing reclamation are also being developed). EPLs have proven successful for other mining ventures (e.g. metal rock mines) in eventually mitigating contaminant loads to receiving waters once biochemical remediation has taken place (although the duration for this to occur may be decades). While the biological interactions at the sediment water interface of tailings ponds or EPLs have been shown to control biogeochemical processes (i.e. chemical fluxes and redox profiles), these have often been limited to static microcosm conditions. Results from such experiments may not tell the whole story given that the sediment water interface often represents a dynamic environment where erosion and deposition may be occurring in association with microbial growth and decay. Mobilization of sediments and associated contaminants may therefore have a profound effect on remediation rates and, as such, may decrease the effectiveness of EPLs as viable reclamation strategies for mining industries. Using a novel core erosion system (U-GEMS), this paper examines how the microbial community can influence sediment water interface stability and how the biofilm community may change with tailings age and after disturbance (biofilm reestablishment). Shear strength, eroded mass measurements, density gradients, high-resolution microscopy, and microbial community analyses were made on 2 different aged tailings (fresh and ∼38 years) under biotic and abiotic conditions. The same experiments were repeated as duplicates with both sets of experiments having consolidation/biostabilization periods of 21 days. Results suggest that the stability of the tailings varies between types and conditions with the fresh biotic tailings experiencing up to 75% more biostabilization than the same abiotic tailings. Further, greater microbial diversity in the aged pond could be a contributing factor to the overall increase in stability of this material over the fresh tailings source.
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