This is the first in a series of posts where I will look at issues related to the protection of Alabama’s groundwater and how our aquifers and surface springs will likely be impacted by surface mining, quarrying, or similar extractive techniques.
The Basic Question: How Will Groundwater Be Protected From Contamination Before It Happens?
Initial reviews of federal environmental laws and Alabama laws and regulations do not provide a clear path to protecting groundwater from oil sands surface mining contamination.
When I posed this question to representatives of ADEM (the Alabama Department of Environmental Management) at the Tuscumbia Roundhouse meeting, Tuesday, June 24, I was referred to the oil and gas board.
So I moved over to the next table and asked Diane Hills of the Alabama State Oil & Gas Board how aquifers would be protected in surface mining activities she could not answer and referred me to Marvin Rogers, general counsel for the Oil & Gas Board. When I asked Mr. Rogers he said that would be a question better addressed to Ms. Hills. Hmmm…..
Others I spoke with who asked similar questions about groundwater protection at Tuesday night’s meeting have told me they were also shuttled back and forth between various state agency representatives and did not get a meaningful response.
The only answer that was given is a variation of this statement: We [state agency] will actively monitor water quality throughout the mining process and if we find violations we will immediately address those.
But here’s the problem with monitoring ….
Once contamination of aquifers happens it’s too late. Water flow in the aquifers of north Alabama is fairly rapid. Toxins and contaminates [poison] will quickly dissipate throughout the aquifer and impact all users. Municipal and community water systems, wells, springs and ponds will be affected.
If the groundwater is contaminated, the burden will then be on the end-user to find alternative water sources. The burden will be on the taxpayers and systems users to pay higher taxes and increased water rates for any attempted and available clean-ups. Some toxins can’t be cleaned up, so the water supply could become tainted for decades or even centuries.
Monitor, Test, Clean-Up, Fine
This is the WRONG solution to protecting aquifers and other sources of groundwater in northwest Alabama.
The rest of this post will address some of the details of what I’ve found in my preliminary research on groundwater protection.
Groundwater Protection 101: Comparisons
Since oil sands mining (a/k/a tar sands mining) has NEVER been conducted in the United States on significant commercial scale, we have no research available about the effect of oil sands mining on groundwater systems. A few pilot projects have been undertaken in Wyoming (1990s) and Utah (current).
Utah is not like Alabama.
As you probably know, the Utah projects are in desert areas, with very different underground water systems. The photo I’ve seen of the Wyoming mining site is desert-like and on the high plains, also very different from northwest Alabama.
As a result, we can’t look to those projects and make a meaningful analogy of what might happen in Alabama. In any event, the PR Springs project getting underway in Utah by US Oil Sands, Inc. has not moved into the active phase. Facility construction is just getting underway.
Opponents in Utah have expressed major concerns about groundwater contamination and have shared images of problems resulting from seepage around test quarries.
In fact, the Bureau of Land Management included groundwater and surface water contamination as a potential adverse impact in its assessment of the tar sands strip mining proposals ultimately approved on government-owned land in the PR Springs area:
Another small-scale oil sands mining project is underway in Logan County, Kentucky. This project was piloted by Arrakis Oil Recovery, LLC. Archer Petroleum Corp., a major Canadian corporation, purchased a 25% interest in the Logan County Kentucky project, which is a 270-acre tar sands mining project officially referred to as the Peak Joint Venture between Arrakis Oil Recovery LLC, Peak Concepts LLC and Phoenix Metals, Inc. According to a news release published by Archer Petroleum, the Peak Joint Venture is being carried out through MidAmerica Oil Sands, LLC.
It’s too early to tell if groundwater is or will be contaminated by oil sands mining in Kentucky. Of course 270 acres is quite bit smaller than the 2,000+ acres purchased by MS Industries II, LLC and/or TMS Newco, LLC in Colbert and Lawrence Counties, Alabama.
Water Wet vs. Oil Wet Bitumen
The tar sands deposits in Canada are different from those in the Hartselle sandstone of Alabama because the Canadian bitumen encased in the soil is “water wet.” That means molecules of water surround the bitumen. The end result of this natural phenomenon is that water is one by-product of processing and the post-processing contaminated water must be stored in those tailings ponds shown in all the pictures.
In Alabama, the bitumen found in the Hartselle sandstone is oil wet. That means there’s no molecule of water surrounding the bitumen. That also means that the Hartselle sandstone can be processed without the need to build tailings ponds for the contaminated water. It does not mean there won’t be water to dispose of at various stages in mining and processing. But it does mean that we’ll have different issues to consider relative to what’s going on in Canada. Many of the issues the local people in Canada are dealing with are similar to issues we must consider here, but tailings ponds in the nature of the tailings ponds seen in the Athabasca fields are not one of the issues we will encounter.
So How Will Mining Affect Groundwater?
Elements, minerals and chemicals are present in the soil and rock and typically remain inert until exposed to air, water or other non-proximate chemicals and elements. When exposed to a catalyst like another element or chemical, these once inert elements, minerals, chemicals can, individually or through reactive processes, become pollutants which contaminate our water and/or air through seepage and/or runoff.
The following quote is from a student’s guide to groundwater contamination published by the Environmental Protection Agency:
Active and abandoned mines can contribute to ground water contamination. Precipitation can leach soluble minerals from mine wastes (known as spoils or tailings) into the ground water below. These wastes often contain metals, acid, minerals, and sulfides….In addition, mines are sometimes pumped to keep them dry; the pumping can cause an upward migration of contaminated ground water, which may be intercepted by a well. (p. C7)
Old geological reports published by the Geological Survey of Alabama (GSA) document problems that have occurred from efforts to dig oil wells in the Hartselle sandstone. The site reference in this excerpt from a 1925 GSA publication is near (perhaps on) some of the land purchased by MS Industries II, LLC or TMS Newco, LLC.
Aquifers in the Hartselle Sandstone supply drinking water
Most of the area that will be affected by surface mining of the Hartselle sandstone for bitumen extraction is located in the Highland Rim.
Springs in the Highland Rim are abundant and typically yield more than 100 pgm of water from limestone, chert, and other rock types. The Highland Rim includes two of Alabama’s three biggest springs. Tuscumbia Spring, also known as Big Spring, supplies water to the city of Tuscumbia. Large springs are common in the Highland Rim because of conduit flow in limestone and chert aquifers. (p. 38, ADEM, Groundwater, part 1).
Various reports by the Geological Survey of Alabama document water flow through the aquifers of northwest Alabama.
Here are two screenshots from a GSA publication on Colbert County, Alabama groundwater:
Here’s a graphic produced by the GSA showing aquifer recharge areas within geological formations of northwest Alabama. The band of white just south of the Tennessee River is the Hartselle sandstone outcrop area (compare with the map below from ACES publication ANR-2192)
Mining May Dissect The Aquifer, Depending on How Deep They Mine.
At a minimum, due to the geology of northwest Alabama, surface mining will likely invade the space of the aquifer, i.e. “cut through” the aquifer or disturb springs that are fed by the aquifer. If this happens, the mining will change the flow pattern of the aquifer and change the water pressure in wells that rely on the aquifer for water.
If the mining site is flooded when water in an aquifer is released through the disturbance of a surface or underground spring, excess water must be stored and/or disposed of somewhere.
Rains On the Mining Sites Will Flush the Contaminants Into the Groundwater
The disturbance of the earth through “surface” mining can lead to the interaction of element, minerals, and chemicals through the exposure to a catalyst, as explained above.
When this disturbance occurs, rain will flush the now-active harmful elements and chemicals into the aquifers that are within the Hartselle sandstone. This will happen naturally as a result of surface mining activity, regardless of any intentional discharge. It’s impossible to stop the rain from seeping into the earth.
Rains On the Tailings Stockpiles
An architectural rendering of the US Oil Sands, Inc. PR Springs Utah site reveals the presence of a tailings storage area at the “environmentally-friendly” processing facility.
Presumably, these will be dry tailings left over after the bitumen is extracted from the mined earth in Utah.
Southern Utah, which is the area of the state where PR Springs mining site is located receives an average of 10” of precipitation each year. http://www.wrcc.dri.edu/narratives/UTAH.htm Yes, that’s 10 inches per year.
Since we have to make analogies about how companies will extract and process materials in northwest Alabama, we can assume, based on the closed-loop, “environmentally friendly” system that US Oil Sands is using, will be similar to the technology adopted in northwest Alabama. We can assume that the Shoals-area processing facilities will also require some type of dry tailings storage pile(s).
Each of these tailings stockpile sites will present opportunities for seepage or leaching into the groundwater beneath the site and stormwater runoff into nearby streams and drainage ditches that lead to streams.
It rains more in Alabama than in Utah.
In contrast to southern Utah, northwest Alabama (Muscle Shoals area) receives anywhere from 3-5+ inches of rain per month, on average, for a total of around 55+ inches of rain per year, in a typical year. So the possibility for seepage and leaching of toxins into the groundwater is much greater in Alabama, due to 5x more rain each year and vastly different underground water systems.
Part 2 of an educational guide to groundwater protection published by ADEM focuses on groundwater contamination. The only mention of surface mining in this guide is a reference to a federal law: The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, which addresses coal mining. My initial research into this law is that it strictly addresses coal mining, but I will continue to research the question as time allows.
Since we can’t make direct comparisons about the effects of oil sands mining on groundwater, we’re left with the need to look at other types of surface mining and how that mining can and has affected groundwater. I will address this topic in a future post.
I have more research on the aquifers and groundwater systems in Colbert County that I’m sifting through and have also turned up an interesting study published in 1979 about the prospects of mining and extracting tar sands in the US. I have ordered a copy of that study from a group of scientists conducting research on behalf of the National Science Foundation.
I wish I could compile and publish all of my on this more quickly, but I cannot work on it full-time. So thanks for your patience.