Imagine if every home in your neighbourhood had its own wastewater treatment plant. Instead of patios, swinging hammocks or herb gardens, backyards would feature storage ponds, filter beds and a labyrinth of pipes and valves.
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Thankfully, this isn’t the case, as modern communities use centralized water facilities and underground pipe networks to supply residents with clean water and remove bio waste (that’s the polite term) neatly and efficiently.
Collaborative water management
Oil sands operators are looking at adopting a similar approach to help manage their water needs. Rather than continuing to build stand-alone infrastructure, storage reservoirs and treatment plants at each project site, companies are looking at opportunities for shared solutions.
As well as reducing costs, collaborative water management promises to reduce wastewater and lessen the environmental impact of oil sands development, since water is an essential ingredient in both mining and in situ extraction.
That’s why water efficiency is an area of focus for oil sands operators. Some 80 to 95 per cent of all water is now recycled, according to Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development.
One area with potential involves treating tailings wastewater at mining operations, and then transporting it to in situ facilities for use in its processes. Suncor, for example, has started doing just this, moving treated tailings water from its mine site north of Fort McMurray to its Firebag development 45 kilometres away using existing pipeline infrastructure.
Wastewater to supply water
Under COSIA’s Regional Water Management Initiative, water management within northern Alberta’s oil sands is being considered as a single system rather than a collection of individual projects. Thus one project’s wastewater might become another project’s supply water, and recycled water from oil sands surface mining operations can reduce groundwater currently used as make-up water to generate steam at in situ operations.
Progress made toward developing a sustainable solution for water management in the oil sands region proves the old adage that a problem shared is a problem halved.
Perhaps there are other community planning practices that can be adopted to help tackle oil sands development challenges. If only there was a blue box recycling program for tailings.