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Oil goes into a tailings pond at the Suncor tar sands operations near Fort McMurray, Alberta, September 17, 2014. (TODD KOROL/REUTERS)

Oil goes into a tailings pond at the Suncor tar sands operations near Fort McMurray, Alberta, September 17, 2014.

(TODD KOROL/REUTERS)

Suncor’s tailings cleanup plan rejected by Alberta’s energy watchdog Add to ...

The Alberta Energy Regulator has sent Suncor Energy Inc.’s tailings cleanup plan back to the drawing board.

In a letter Friday, the province’s energy watchdog said Suncor’s submitted plan for tailings remediation at its base plant and Millennium site did not satisfy the regulator’s requirements. For instance, the AER said Suncor has not provided enough information to prove its plan to use “water-capping” – which involves the placement of a layer of water over a deposit of tailings to form a new lake – will actually result in the creation of an aquatic ecosystem.

The question of how to manage the cleanup of tailings ponds hosting sometimes-toxic byproducts ranging from water to clay to residual bitumen has been one of the thorniest environmental questions for the Alberta government and oil sands industry.

Suncor’s application on tailings was made under the government’s latest attempt at governing the cleanup, the AER’s Directive 85. The directive came into force last year to manage fluid tailings both during and after oil sands mine operation, with the goal of limiting liability and environmental risk. The objective is to make sure fluid tailings are ready to reclaim within a decade of an oil sands mine closing.

Six other oil sands operators have similar applications in the AER’s queue, and will also have their cleanup plans vetted by the energy regulator.

In a news release late Friday, Suncor acknowledged the denial of its applications but said it is not the end of the process. “Suncor will continue to work with the regulator in order to move the regulatory process forward,” it said.

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