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Integrated surface water and groundwater modelling for oil sands reclamation

Paper from the Proceedings of Mine Closure 2015 conference held in Vancouver, Canada, June 1-3, 2015. (downloadable PDF)

Authors: R.M. Nagare, WorleyParsons Canada Services Ltd., Canada; Y.J. Park, Aquanty Inc., Canada; J. Pal, WorleyParsons Canada Services Ltd., Canada

Published by InfoMine Inc.
ISBN: 978-0-9917905-9-3
Copyright: 2015, InfoMine Inc.


Reclamation of oil sands tailings ponds will be a challenging long-term process. Management of saline pore-water in the tailings sand is thought to be critical for the successful reclamation on both a landform (single tailings pond) and site-wide scale. The broad objective of returning the disturbed landscape to a pre-disturbance equivalency requires understanding and evaluation of environmental performance of conceptual reclamation designs. Various research on challenges of reclamation of tailings ponds as well as research into the hydrology of the natural boreal landscape has identified the following desirable hydrologic characteristics of reclaimed tailings ponds: (1) a water balance that maximises outflow to limit "evapoconcentration" of salts and sustain end-of-pit lakes; (2) a shallow subsurface flow system to limit transport of salts from within tailings ponds; and (3) depth to groundwater table in the uplands that limits potential for upward migration of salinity.

Understanding and evaluating the environmental performance of conceptual reclamation designs with respect to the above desirable characteristics is challenging given the high potential of groundwater-surface water interaction expected to occur within a reclaimed landscape. If based on a strong conceptual model, integrated surface water–groundwater modelling (integrated modelling) can provide powerful tools to evaluate the potential environmental performance of a reclaimed landscape. Transient simulations, driven by long-term climatic forcing, could allow for detailed understanding of water balance under wet, average and dry climatic cycles. Coupling the surface and sub-surface domains could allow for a more realistic representation of water movement through the landscape than found in uncoupled models. The coupled modelling approach is thought to be of critical importance, especially under boreal settings, where the coupling is complex and occurs at many levels (e.g. shallow rooting zones and turning on and off of evapotranspiration in wetland areas). Challenges remain with scaling of models, especially for coupled flow and solute transport modelling. This paper discusses the practical issues and application of integrated models to the complex problem of understanding and evaluating the potential environmental performance of reclaimed tailings ponds.

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