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The particle-size distribution of oil-sands tailings has always figured prominently in the mine planning and overall operations and closure strategy in surface-mined oil sands. In oil-sands applications, the convention is to define the sand as the mineral components >44 μm in size and the fines as the mineral component which is <44 μm. The water-based extraction process uses 2 m3 of water to extract the bitumen from 1 m3 of oil sand, and as the bulk of this water is recycled, large containment areas are required to maintain a supply of extraction water. A significant proportion of water that is not recycled is retained in both the sand and fines components of the resulting tailings streams and the essence of tailings management comes down to separating and managing the water that can be recovered from the tailings. As the mining operations have become larger, and ore properties vary over wider ranges, the designation of sand and fines was simply inadequate in explaining the behavior of many of the tailings and a thorough understanding of the entire particle-size distribution became more important. Due in part to the upgrading and refinery operations often associated with bitumen production, the oil sands industry is relatively sophisticated in its approach to tailings characterization and tailings management. As a result, any discussion of clays can, and often does, include both a size and mineralogy component. In any case, there is no doubt about the importance of understanding and quantifying the clay component of any tailings stream when defining a dewatering or management strategy. Historically, it might have been argued that the strong correlation between clay content and fines content would be an adequate characterization and tailings-planning parameter. Although this is still largely true, the clay to fines correlations can sometimes be measurably different from operation to operation, resulting in varying tailings performance. In addition, some tailings-management options such as thickeners and centrifuges can separate the fines fraction and even the clay fraction in a fluid fine tailings stream. These upset operational modes can create what are known colloquially as Franken-Fines, a stream with a very disproportionately high clay content that can create an equally disproportionate tailings problem. The tailings strategies that will be discussed include composite/consolidated/non-segregating tailings, thickening, freeze-thaw processes, rim ditching, thin lift dewatering, and centrifugation. The present chapter outlines the evolution of many of these tailings-management strategies that have been tested extensively or are currently in use in the surface-mined oil-sands industry, with a particular emphasis on the importance of understanding the clay size and clay mineralogy in the evaluation and understanding of tailings dewatering performance.

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