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The Geochemical Evolution of Oil Sands Tailings Pond Seepage, Resulting from Diffusive Ingress Through Underlying Glacial Till Sediments Open Access


Other title
Glacial Till
Trace Elements
Oil Sands Tailings Pond
Cation Exchange Capacity
Reactive Transport Modeling
Batch Sorption Experiments
Radial Diffusion Cells
Athabasca Oil Sands Region
Major Ions
Type of item
Degree grantor
University of Alberta
Author or creator
Holden, Alexander A
Supervisor and department
Ulrich, Ania (Civil and Environmental Engineering)
Examining committee member and department
Weisener, Chris (Earth and Environmental Sciences)
Chalaturnyk, Rick (Civil and Environmental Engineering)
Mayer, K. Ulrich (Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences)
Siddique, Tariq (Renewable Resources)
Wilson, G. Ward (Civil and Environmental Engineering)
Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Geoenvironmental Engineering
Date accepted
Graduation date
Doctor of Philosophy
Degree level
Oil sands tailings are comprised of sands, silts, clays, and process-affected water (OSPW). The latter includes high concentrations of dissolved ions, as well as organic contaminants, making the water toxic to aquatic organisms. In Northern Alberta, tailings ponds are being constructed on glacial till, overlying sand channel aquifers, establishing a potential hydraulic connection between the pond and downstream water systems. However, to date, no targeted attempts have been made to characterize the biogeochemical evolution and end products as tailings pond OSPW infiltrates into glacial till prior to reaching these aquifers, thus overlooking a key component of the contaminant transport pathway. Addressing this knowledge gap is a critical step towards protecting aquatic resources. Cation exchange capacity, exchangeable cation, batch sorption and radial diffusion cell experiments and supporting geochemical simulations were conducted: a) to assess the potential for release (or attenuation) of trace elements and major ions from glacial tills when exposed to OSPW; and b) to identify the principal geochemical processes involved in controlling pore water and sediment chemistry. The experiments revealed that sediment-bound cations available for exchange, consisted of Ca>Mg>K>NH4>Na; while the mean cation exchange capacity in the till (Methylene Blue method) was 4.7±2.7meq 100g-1. Results further indicate that the ingress and interaction of OSPW with the glacial till sediment-pore water system will result in: the mitigation of incoming sodium by ion exchange with sediment-bound calcium and magnesium, followed by limited precipitation of calcium and magnesium carbonates; sulfate reduction and subsequent sulfide precipitation; and biodegradation of organic carbon. High concentrations of OSPW chloride (~375mg L-1) are expected to persist. Ion exchange, oxidation-reduction, and mineral phase reactions including reductive dissolution of metal oxyhydroxides influenced trace metal mobility, which is similar to previous observations within sandy aquifer settings. Furthermore, though several trace elements showed the potential for release, large-scale mobilization is not supported. Understanding the environmental impact of tailings seepage is of great importance in managing water resources in Alberta. The present research offers a scientific basis to guide future remediation and reclamation strategies, seepage management schemes, and development of compliance legislation, and is therefore anticipated to have industry-wide benefit.
Permission is hereby granted to the University of Alberta Libraries to reproduce single copies of this thesis and to lend or sell such copies for private, scholarly or scientific research purposes only. Where the thesis is converted to, or otherwise made available in digital form, the University of Alberta will advise potential users of the thesis of these terms. The author reserves all other publication and other rights in association with the copyright in the thesis and, except as herein before provided, neither the thesis nor any substantial portion thereof may be printed or otherwise reproduced in any material form whatsoever without the author's prior written permission.
Citation for previous publication
Holden, A.A., Donahue, R.B., Ulrich, A.C., (2011). Geochemical interactions between process-affected water from oil sands tailings ponds and North Alberta surficial sediments. Journal of Contaminant Hydrology, 119, 55-68.

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