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A tailings pond reflects the Syncrude oilsands mine facility near Fort McMurray, Alta. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)
A tailings pond reflects the Syncrude oilsands mine facility near Fort McMurray, Alta. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Oil sands cleanup plan panned by environmentalists Add to ...

Environmental groups are attacking Alberta's energy regulator for allowing to clean up toxic mine effluent more slowly than strict new rules stipulate.

The Energy Resources Conservation Board gave conditional approval Friday to cleanup plans for two major oil sands projects: two mines operated by Syncrude and Suncor Energy Inc.'s proposed Fort Hills project.

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They are the first two such plans approved by the regulator, which, along with Premier Ed Stelmach, has said it intends to strongly enforce strict new cleanup rules. The oil sands form the province's most important industry, but their high greenhouse gas output, combined with the ugly scars of mining bitumen, have made them an environmental target. Activists' efforts to pressure major international companies like BP PLC, Statoil ASA and Total SA away from the oil sands have gained some momentum, adding significance to efforts to clean them up.

But the regulator gave permission to Syncrude to treat far less of its mine tailings than the rules require.

At issue are what industry calls "mature fine tailings," minute clay particles that can remain suspended in waste water for centuries if not treated. The rule governing tailings cleanup stipulates that fully half of those tailings need to be treated by 2013 and turned into dirt that can support vehicle travel. Syncrude will only be required to clean up 14.8 per cent of its tailings by 2013 - although the company will meet the standard a year later.

Still, environmental groups were angered by the delay, with Greenpeace calling the regulator a "coward," and Joe Obad, associate director of environmental group Water Matters, accusing it of "coddling" industry.

"If they didn't push [companies]on compliance initially here, Albertans and Canadians should ask: Are they really going to be that serious later on?" Mr. Obad said.

But Syncrude argued that it takes time to develop the technologies needed to clean up tailings on the scale of the oil sands, where a handful of operators have accumulated 840 million cubic feet of tailings spread out over 170 square kilometres, an area 1.5 times the city of Vancouver.

"Our plan, in our estimation, is an aggressive plan," spokeswoman Cheryl Robb said. "From Albertans' perspective, I don't know if they would want us to implement technology that we haven't fully tested out, because we don't want to leave a mess behind."

Davis Sheremata, a spokesman with the energy regulator, said Syncrude needed "flexibility" in meeting the requirements."

"It was physically impossible for the company to meet Directive 074 by next year," Mr. Sheremata said. "But we were able to get a half-billion-dollar commitment from them that they would immediately begin working to plan two [tailings cleaning]facilities and get them up and running."

Of six companies that submitted cleanup plans to the regulator, only Suncor met the requirements in its original submission, the regulator said. However, most of Suncor's existing operations have yet to receive tailings plan approval. Projects run by Albian Sands Energy Inc., Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., Imperial Oil Resources Ventures Ltd. and Shell Canada Inc. have also yet to be approved.

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