Novel detoxification treatment for oil sands tailings: validating reclamation strategies

The Athabasca Oil Sands of Northern Alberta, Canada is one of the largest bitumen reserves in the world, producing millions of barrels of oil per day. Given proximity of the surface, open-pit mining is a primary method of extracting bitumen from the ground, producing millions of liters of waste materials consisting of water, sand, clay and residual bitumen. These waste materials are quite toxic, given their relatively high hydrocarbon and salt content (among other more complex organics). Given the repetitive recycling of these waters to reduce freshwater consumption, contaminants become even more concentrated, requiring methods for detoxification and promote remediation down the road. During laboratory experimentation to study both biotic and abiotic factors controlling the evolution of tailings pond sediments, it was discovered that the commonly used gamma irradiation treatment (used for sterilization in the food industry for example) reduced the concentration of a certain organic compound by up to 96%. A patent was filed for by Dr. Weisener and his colleague Dr. Ciborowski, and subsequent work has sought to validate this detoxification treatment both in the laboratory and in larger scale field experiments. Research to date supports initial findings in that this treatment appears to speed up the process of remediation in the early stages of pond evolution. Our studies have shown that the microbial consortia responsible for biodegradation and metabolism in complex environments appear to be stimulated and geochemical analyses support these findings.

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