Sustainability at Suncor

Tailings management

Tailings reclamation requires continuous learning, collaboration and innovation.

We are committed to using world-leading practices to manage and reduce tailings and we are now treating more tailings than we produce at Base Plant through our TRO™ tailings management approach and implementation of the permanent aquatic storage structure (PASS) treatment process. In addition, we have reduced the total number of active tailings ponds. We’re working to treat and dewater fluid tailings to support reclamation plans and biodiversity in the areas where we operate.

Tailings life cycle

Our tailings technology improvements focus on fluid tailings. Although sand separates quickly from the tailings, smaller particles of clay and silt remain suspended in water and form fluid tailings, which in the past could take decades to separate. Over 90% of the tailings form coarse tailings deposits that are used to backfill the mine and for construction purposes (e.g., tailings dams) and require no treatment before reclamation. The remaining 10% is fluid tailings which are treated to separate the suspended clay and silt from the water, enabling future reclamation into a healthy closure landscape. Finding ways to treat fluid tailings quickly and cost-effectively is critical to improving our overall reclamation performance.

Permanent aquatic storage structure (PASS) is a Suncor-led research and technology development project focused on an accelerated dewatering process and treatment of fluid fine tailings creating a PASS lake shortly after the end of mine life.

We manage tailings stability risk through our Tailings Facility Management System (TFMS). TFMS is a well-established process which is a supporting element of Suncor’s overall Operational Excellence Management System (OEMS). Suncor’s tailings management system emphasizes:

  • responsible corporate accountability for tailings
  • effective operations integrity and governance
  • robust dam safety management.
 Up close view oil sands tailings management technology
Up close view of oil sands tailings management technology.

Regulatory requirements

The current Tailings Management Framework (TMF) was developed by Alberta Environment and Parks under the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan. The Alberta Energy Regulator also implemented Directive 085: Fluid Tailings Management for Oil Sands Mining Projects, as a key part of TMF implementation, to minimize fluid tailings inventories through fluid tailings treatment and progressive reclamation during the life of a project.

Suncor enhanced its management plans and tailings management approach to meet the requirements of the TMF. These plans incorporate what we’ve learned through implementing various treatment technologies and through sharing information and best practices with members of Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA)

In 2020, the Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management was released. Suncor follows the Mining Association of Canada’s Towards Sustainable Mining program guidelines and is reviewing the Global Standard against our current practices.

Dam safety and integrity

We take tailings dam safety very seriously and have been implementing a robust dam safety program since we began operations in the Athabasca Oil Sands in the late 1960s. Our dam safety program protects the integrity of tailings dam structures through extensive checks and balances for design, construction and monitoring, including a series of internal and external reviews.

We follow stringent requirements governing tailings and dam safety in Canada. Alberta regulators released the new Dam and Canal Safety Directive in 2018 that establishes requirements for industry-leading practices for dam safety management. Our dam safety program is world-class and consistent with the updated requirements in the Directive.

Our tailings management and dam safety practices continuously improve with the ongoing development of geotechnical engineering practices and industry-leading tailings and dam safety guidelines and regulations. We employ specialized and experienced engineers— referred to as geotechnical engineers of record — for each tailings facility and/or dam structure. These individuals are qualified to lead the design work of each area, and work in collaboration with internationally experienced design consultants, referred to as geotechnical designers of record.

Additionally, an independent external review board called the Mine Development and Reclamation Review Board reviews and critiques ongoing design, construction and operation of our tailings facilities several times a year.

More information is available in Suncor’s response to the Initiative.

Engagement

Suncor works with and routinely engages with Indigenous communities and stakeholders to review our approach and share reclamation tailings progress and challenges. We also incorporate feedback into future engagement plans to enhance information sharing.

In November 2020, we held our annual Tailings Sharing Session allowing communities the opportunity to provide feedback on our approach to tailings management. Following a request for more information about water intakes and outfalls along the Lower Athabasca River, in 2020, we compiled an overview of water systems in the region and shared this information with communities. We’re also sharing our learnings with other operators through organizations like COSIA. Through knowledge sharing, we’re continuously improving tailings management.

On this page
On this page

Read more in the Report on Sustainability

Download the PDF