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Canada and Alberta are clearing the way for oil sands companies to release water treated from toxic tailings ponds into a major waterway in a policy shift aimed at tackling one of the industry’s biggest environmental problems.

Some 1.3 trillion litres of liquid tailings − a mixture of sand, silt, clay and residual bitumen and solvents − are held in ponds covering 220 square kilometres in northeastern Alberta, representing a multibillion-dollar liability for the industry and province.

Ottawa and the Alberta government are in the early stages of crafting new rules with industry to authorize discharges of treated effluent into the Athabasca River, even though the sector’s biggest companies have yet to show they can effectively clean the toxin-laced water on a commercial scale.

The federal government is targeting final regulations for 2022 modelled on existing rules that authorize releases from metal, mineral and diamond mines, provided contaminants are within regulated limits for “deleterious” substances under the federal Fisheries Act, according to documents obtained by The Globe and Mail. The changes would also require approval under Alberta’s Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act.

The policy work, which predates last month’s Alberta election, is a sharp break from current rules that prohibit any wastewater releases and could deepen concerns about the ecological health of one of the world’s largest freshwater deltas.

Ottawa says it would put in place stringent environmental controls before permitting any discharges, seen by some as a necessary step for cleaning up the tailing ponds and restoring them to their predevelopment state.

The industrial waste has attracted international scorn for killing migratory birds, including the deaths of 1,600 ducks in a Syncrude Canada Ltd. tailings pond in 2008 that led to a $3-million penalty for the company.

In 2015, the Alberta government eased regulations and began developing policy and criteria for tailings water release after the industry said it could not meet more stringent cleanup standards.

Federal and industry officials say authorized discharges could accelerate wider reclamation efforts and reduce risks of environmental damage from potential seepage and dam failures.

However, there are currently no chemical or toxicological guidelines to regulate the safe release of what is known as process water. And companies have yet to deploy technology to reduce contaminants. They include relatively high concentrations of organic compounds represented by naphthenic acids, which scientists say have potential to affect reproductive and immune systems in fish.

That’s a big concern because the Peace-Athabasca delta already faces acute environmental pressures from industry, dams and climate change, said Melody Lepine, director of government and industry relations with the area’s Mikisew Cree First Nation, which is participating in the policy discussions.

“They always use the river system and our drinking water as a sort of experiment, without really realizing it impacts people downstream," she said.

Environment and Climate Change Canada said regulations under development “would include strict conditions that are protective of the environment.

“A regulatory framework of this complexity and importance will take several years to complete and will include extensive engagement of interested parties and Indigenous peoples," a department spokesperson said in a statement.

A spokesman for Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP) said the department is still assessing the scope of any potential releases, treatment technologies and wastewater characteristics, as well as human-health implications and environmental risks.

Alberta and the federal government are also jointly financing a study to design and deploy monitoring systems in the Athabasca River for two years prior to the possible release of treated wastewater.

“Release of treated oil-sands process-affected water could only occur if human health and environmental outcomes are protected and risks are appropriately and responsibly managed," Scott Lundy, AEP assistant director of external communications, wrote in an e-mail.

Syncrude had sought approval to discharge up to 500,000 cubic metres of treated wastewater during a six-month period between May and October, over two consecutive years. That would comprise between 0.2 per cent and 1 per cent of Athabasca River flow, based on long-term mean monthly flows over that period, according to Alberta Environment.

Syncrude spokesman Will Gibson said that proposal has been shelved while the company works to validate its treatment technology. A pilot is slated to begin next month at its Mildred Lake oil sands site, with capacity to process up to 2,700 cubic metres of wastewater a day.

Mr. Gibson stressed that no water would be released to the environment and insisted the company is not currently seeking approvals to do so.

“We’re going to wait for the results from the closed-loop testing before we talk about the release of treated water off our site,” he said.

Michael van den Heuvel, who studies the effects of agriculture and chemical use on freshwater and coastal environments at the University of Prince Edward Island, said the release of wastewater from the oil sands is inevitable.

The Alberta Energy Regulator requires companies to have tailings ponds ready to be reclaimed within 10 years of the end of a mine’s life.

The industry plans to clean them up by pouring fresh water on top of dried tailings in mined-out pits. But the artificial lakes won’t support aquatic life so long as they are cut off from the surrounding environment, Prof. van den Heuvel said, owing to high chemical concentrations.

"It’s going to happen sooner or later. And it’s better it happens in a controlled and managed fashion than later on when nobody has the money,” he said.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article misstated the year in which 1,600 ducks died in a Syncrude tailings pond.

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