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Tar Sands – World’s Dirtiest Oil?


I read your article about the concern over the management of Royal Dutch Shell’s tailings ponds that result from the open-pit mining of heavy tar deposits in Alberta.
There are many lessons for the Canadian and Provincial governments to be learned about open-pit mining and reclamation operations from their nearby neighbors in the States.

The Canadian Rockies are not noted for their mineral deposits. In the United States however, vast deposits of coal, copper, zinc, gold, silver and molybdenum have been discovered and mined over the last 150 years. Many of these operations have been abandoned leaving behind heaps of toxic tailings that continue to pollute the environment today.

One of the classic examples of such an operation is the old Anaconda copper mine in Butte, Montana. In 1955 the underground mines had become inefficient so Anaconda began open pit mining. The result was the huge Berkeley Pit.

Berkeley Pit – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Images for the Berkeley pit butte montana

NASA – Berkeley Pit: Butte, Montana

Mining operations ceased in 1982 and the pit, along with all the tailings and tailing ponds were abandoned by the operator of the mine at that time, Atlantic Richfield Company (now part of British Petroleum). Under US law the company was not responsible for reclamation. The result is that the pit is now considered one of the most dangerously polluted locations in the US and is considered a Superfund site for reclamation efforts.

Perversely, this site has become somewhat of a tourist attraction because of its notoriety as being one of the most dangerously polluted locations in the world.

The Berkeley Pit Visitor Center – Butte, MT

Berkeley Pit – Visit Montana

What makes this site so dangerous is the acidity of the water (natural sulfuric acid produces from the sulfide minerals in the rock wall of the lake), and the heavy metals concentration in the waters of the lake that now fill the old mining pit and the nearby tailings ponds. In fact, these waters are so heavily polluted they can and are mined for some minerals.

The pit lake is nearing capacity and in a few years this toxic lake will begin over flowing. Any such overflow of cannot be allowed to simply flow into the local watershed for the toxic brew would heavily pollute the Clark’s Fork of the Columbia River, and then the Columbia River itself. So, treatment facilities are being built to deal with the acid and metals problem. This treatment facility will need to operate so long as water flows from the lake and tailings ponds. And it will be operated at taxpayer expense.

The question that is now before the Federal and Provincial governments in Canada is how they are going to deal with the long term management of the tailing piles and ponds generated by the strip mining of the Peace River tar sands. Those sands will contain residual amounts of hydrocarbons that will eventually leak into the environment.

The question is: ‘Who will foot the bill for the management, pollution treatment and reclamation long after the oil companies have left and abandoned the mines (and taken their profits with them).

To my knowledge no ‘superfund’ has been set up by the Federal and Provincial governments to deal with this problem, and it will become a HUGE problem in the future. Who will be responsible for reclamation, and how will these lands be reclaimed ?? Who will foot the bill ?? Who will set reclamation standards and manage compliance ?? Will it be the Federal and Provincial governments or the oil industry ??

Look to the States for examples of irresponsible Federal mining policy and law and learn from the mistakes made south of the border.

It would only seem fair that such a reclamation ‘superfund’ should be established and that the oil companies pay a royalty into that fund to ensure that there is enough money to deal with the long term reclamation and environment problems that will develop as a consequence of the open pit mining of the tar sands. It is not as if the oil companies and their stockholders are not making a large sum of money from the sale of those mined hydrocarbons to their neighbors south of the border (i.e., the US). Otherwise, the Canadian taxpayer will get stuck with the bill.

But this is only one man’s opinion.


This link discusses Altantic Richfield’s (now British Petroleum) part of the superfund cleanup for the area around the Berkeley Pit.

Silver Bow Creek/Butte | Region 8 | US EPA

This link is a list of US EPA ‘Superfund’ cleanup sites in Montana alone. Most of these are associated with mining operations. Several of them are associated with logging and the production of telephone poles.

Montana Superfund Sites

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