Nordie Morgenstern is well known to all who work in the oil sands tailings industry. He sits on the geotechnical peer review boards of both Syncrude and Suncor. He travels the world consulting to mines on geotechnical issues. He is in great demand as an expert witness on legal cases.
I have seen and observed him at numerous conferences where he makes profound statements with overwhelming confidence and assurance. His mane of white hair and his tall stature assure him an alpha appearance. Those who have worked with him (I have not) talk in hushed tones of his genius and insight, his persuasive ways, and his engineering pragmatism. Everybody I know respects his opinion and seeks it out in hard cases.
Yet this stature is now called into question in a rather emotional and ill-argued blog posting by somebody who calls himself The Disaffected Lib. Here is a quote from his recent posting–he is talking about oil sands tailings ponds:
Now about that 300 foot plus wall. It’s experiencing “deformation creep.” Tailing ponds expert Dr. Norbert Morgenstern describes deformation creep as movement in a dam’s foundation. Back when he was working for the European Union, Morgenstern described tailing pond reliability as, “among the lowest of earth structures” and warned that “a well-intentioned corporation employing apparently well-qualified consultants is not adequate insurance against serious incidents.” Since his EU days Morgenstern has become one of those consultants himself – in Alberta – and doesn’t think any of his conclusions apply to Alberta’s ponds.
Of course what could go wrong? A lot. Nikiforuk writes:
“Engineers and ecologists agree that the tailing ponds pose a substantial risk to Canada’s largest river basin. ‘The longer the tailings sit there, the more likely there will be a major weather event and a big dyke failure,’ predicts Bruce Peachey of New Paradigm Engineering. ‘If any of those [tailing ponds]= were ever to breach and discharge into the river, the world would forever forget about the Exxon Valdez,’ adds the University of Alberta’s [eminent hydrologist] David Schindler. (the Valdez released about eleven million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. …PAH concentrations alone in the tar ponds represent about three thousand Valdezes.)”
This is just a glimpse at the tailing ponds nightmare and it’s going to get worse, much worse. After the most easily extracted bitumen is exhausted it’s going to become even harder, and much more water and natural gas intensive, to go after the rest. Recycle as they must, the Tar Sands developments will be producing far more, vastly more toxic waste water over the next two decades. Is it any wonder that politicians of flimsy integrity avoid talking about this?
I cannot speak for Morgenstern on this accusation. I presume on what I have seen and read of him, that his response will be well reasoned and urbane. Maybe he will reply that the ERCB Directive 74 which demands that new oil sands tailings have a strength of 5 kPa at least one year after deposition will solve the problem and obviate the possibilities raised in this report. Maybe he will reply that he has and continues to urge the industry to more conservative practices that will preclude the possibility of tailings pond failure to affect the river, now and in the long term. And that is is better to improve things from the inside with knowledge than from the outside, handicapped by ignorance.
The simple fact that I have written about often enough is that in the course of geological time, geomorphic processes will operate and erosion will prevail over the dreams and protestations on man. As ill-informed as the Disaffected Lib is, he is correct in this one fact: in the fullness of time, geomorphology will prevail.
As engineers, we can by hold back the forces of time for a time, but thereafter nature will have its way. Thus it makes sense to turn the tailings to a solid, to provide long-term stable dikes, to create natural topographic forms, and to set up conditions where the release of things to nature will replicate natural return rates and natural attenuation capacities.
This issues has been faced and addressed in the USA with regard to the uranium mill tailings impoundments. I have written extensively on the topic. You can find my writings on the InfoMine Library if you are interested. That work was prompted by politicians. I doubt Canadian politicians will emulate them.
Yet I have a sneaky faith that Canadian engineers are and will rise to the challenge. Afterall as engineers on the UMTRA project we rose to the challenge, and we were but ordinary folk. I suspect we can do the same for the oil sands tailings. Stay tuned.