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

Alberta's energy regulator has approved plans to treat the toxic waste produced by two oil sands projects, one of which has not yet been built.

The Energy Resources Conservation Board said Friday that it has accepted, with several conditions, mine tailings cleanup plans submitted by Suncor Energy Inc. for its proposed Fort Hills project, as well as plans to treat effluent produced by Syncrude Canada Ltd. at its Mildred Lake and Aurora North mines.

The regulator is "setting down strong performance criteria that the industry have to meet in managing tailings pond and returning them to a trafficable surface and those plans are now enforceable by the ERCB," said chairman Dan McFadyen in an interview Friday morning. "It's a milestone event in that we now have our first two approved plans for the management of tailings ponds going forward."

The energy regulator is approving Syncrude's plan even though it is based on technology that uses centrifuges and has yet to move beyond the pilot test stage.

The regulator demanded that Syncrude build a commercial demonstration plant for that technology by mid-2012. A full-scale centrifuging plant will have to be built by 2015, "unless otherwise approved by the Board," the regulator stipulated.

The regulator also admitted that while Fort Hills will be obliged to "maintain zero inventory of Mature Fine Tailings … at the end of mine life," Syncrude will not be held to the same standard. Syncrude will be allowed to bury some of its waste at the bottom of a lake, a controversial technique that environmentalists say is unproven.

"Syncrude has built up a legacy of mature fine tailings. They came to the board for approval in 1993 to reclaim as a water-capped lake. They got approval subject to it being demonstrated safe," said Richard Houlihan, chief oil sands engineer with the regulator.

That approval will not be rescinded, he said, although such "water-capped" lakes have been the subject of much concern among environmental groups.

"We have big concerns" about that technique, said Simon Dyer, oil sands program director for the Pembina Institute. "It's never been proven and it's not a responsible solution."

Only Suncor met its directive 74, which stipulates accelerated tailings cleanup, in its original submission, the regulator said. However, most of Suncor's existing operations have yet to receive approval for their tailings plans, which also use a new technology. 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.

Alberta has accumulated 840-million cubic metres of tailings ponds, enough to cover 170 square kilometres, or 1.5 times the size of the city of Vancouver.