This article examines various expressed concerns about the impact on salmon fishing that could follow the breach of the Mount Polley tailings pond in B.C.’s Cariboo District, perhaps the largest disaster of its kind in Canadian history.

Getting Started

Appropriate Subject Area(s):

Environmental studies, world issues, biology

Key Questions to Explore:

  • What is a tailings pond?
  • How big are these tailings ponds?
  • How toxic are they?
  • Who monitors these ponds?

New Terminology:

Tailings pond

Materials Needed:

Access to the Internet for group research

Study and Discussion Activity

Introduction to lesson and task:

Pipelines have become the star topic when Alberta tar sands crude oil comes up in conversation or is discussed in the media, which is understandable given the controversy surrounding their construction. The two major ones as far as a Canadian national perspective is concerned are the Northern Gateway pipeline, which recently received federal Conservative government approval, albeit with 209 conditions (Northern Gateway approval conditions) and a number of groups planning legal battles to prevent its construction; and the Keystone XL pipeline proposal, which has yet to receive approval from the Obama administration but which has been the subject of considerable high profile debate and is a very important and politically sensitive issue both in Canada and the United States. Aside from the main issue of the direct and potential impact of these pipelines on the immediate environments through which they pass, there are a series of additional issues of equal importance. For example, there are concerns about how the construction of these pipelines will reinforce, if not increase, our reliance on fossil fuels when, in fact, we should be seeking alternative renewable energy sources because of the impact that burning fossil fuels is having on climate change. Additionally, there is great concern about the direct negative environmental impact of the production of the crude oil that flows in these pipelines. One issue related to crude production concerns tailings ponds, which are essentially large man-made lakes which hold the by-products from mining and extracting bitumen, including finely ground rock particles, chemicals and water. Many of the substances can be toxic.

Recently a major breach of one of these tailings ponds occurred at the Mount Polley mine in British Columbia. This breach released 10 billion litres of tailings into local waterways in early August 2014, causing great concern about the impact it will have on both the salmon fishing which was just getting underway and the potability of the drinking water in the affected area. The impact of this spill will not be known until extensive testing can be done, but it reinforces the concerns that exist about the potential threats to our environment from both the production and transport of crude oil.

This lesson will have the students examine tailings ponds to increase their knowledge of these reservoirs and to help them better understand the potential threat that they present.

Action (lesson plan and task):

  • Begin the lesson by asking the students to identify the various things that come to mind when they hear the words “Alberta Tar Sands”.
  • Record their answers for all to see.
  • Once this has been done, have the class examine the list to see what level of concern there is about this issue.
  • Have the students identify the various categories of the listed items, including such headings as: building of pipelines, increased reliance on fossil fuels and the impacts of the production of crude oil.
  • Once this has been done, indicate to the students that the issue of the impacts of production, and in particular tailings ponds, will be the focus of the lesson.
  • Ask the students if they have heard of the Mount Polley tailings Pond breach and the concerns generated because of it.
  • After reviewing what they know about the breach, provide them with a copy of the article and allow them time to read it.
  • Get their responses to what they have just read.
  • Put the students in groups of four or five and indicate to them that they are going to research tailings ponds by answering a series of questions and reporting back to the class.
  • Assign the following questions to the groups:
    1. What are tailings?
    2. What is a tailings pond?
    3. What kind of substances are found in these ponds?
    4. What are the environmental risks posed by these ponds?
    5. How many are there and how large are they?
    6. How is a tailings pond built?
    7. Who has responsibility for regulating and monitoring these ponds?
  • Give them the remainder of the period to research their answers and tell them that they will have a few minutes at the beginning of the next class to prepare their report to the class.
  • Begin the next period by allowing this promised time for preparation.
  • Once this has been done, begin the reports by having one group provide its answer to a specific question and then allow the other groups to contribute any additional information.
  • Continue this process until all questions have been answered and all additional information has been provided.

Consolidation of Learning:

Once the presentations have been completed, have the groups discuss, given the research they have just done, whether or not they support the continuation and/or the expansion of crude oil production in the Alberta tar sands and have each group report their position to the class.

Success and Additional Learning

Success Criteria:

The students will be able to:

  1. Explain what a tailings pond is.
  2. Identify some of the materials contained in these ponds.
  3. Explain the impact these ponds are having on the environment and the potential threat these ponds present.

Confirming Activity:

Have the students provide a written response to the following statement:

“Tailings ponds are a necessary evil as they are a by-product of the production of crude oil which is essential to our way of life and the health of our economy.”