Project: Phantom Ecology
Bituminous Sands, Northern Alberta, Canada
The Mildred Lake Settling Basin (MLSB) is by volume of construction material, the largest earthen structure in the world. It is only one of many tailings ponds, existing and proposed in the Athabasca bituminous sands region. It should also be said that to call these designed structures “ponds” is a misnomer. “Tailings Lake” better communicates the scale of these artificial constructions. And while “tailings embankment” or “tailings dam” gives a stronger sense of their engineered origins, these two terms seem to speak less to the body of toxic liquids just beyond the earthen structure.
Infamously, Syncrude Canada Ltd. was fined $3 million in 2008 when more than 1,606 ducks were killed in the company’s tailings ponds. The amount of money or number of birds that died pales in significance to the scaling of the future issues faced by the storage of this quantity of toxic liquid in unlined earthen structures.
And yet as photographs show, the Mildred Lake Settling Basin is also strikingly beautiful. The viscous toxic liquid has a higher surface tension and thus a greater resistance to wind and wave action. This means the Albertan sky is more perfectly reflected.
Proposed in the following pages is a platform extended out over the tailings pond and an adjacent elevated lookout. As visitors walk out onto the projected platform they must balance their discomfort at being suspended above a toxic liquid that will kill them with the promise of an instagramable moment of beauty, where sky and earth invert their cosmic relation. The elevated lookout provides more safety and distance from the toxic pond but extends the visitors perspective, forcing a confrontation with the scale of destruction and requiring an admission that distance does not separate one from the consequences of our actions.