New pilot project aims to detoxify oilsands waste water for safe return to Athabasca River

The province is launching a pilot project this summer in partnership with Syncrude and the federal government that looks at reclaiming waste water from the oilsands.

A new technology, developed by Syncrude, aimed at cleaning the water is being tested

A Suncor facility in Alberta's oilsands. (Air Quality Research Division, Environment and Climate Change Canada)

The province is launching a pilot project this summer in partnership with Syncrude and the federal government to look at releasing treated waste water from the oilsands back into the Athabasca River. 

The program will test a new process developed by Syncrude to treat contaminated water, using activated carbon mixed with water from the oilsands, and put through a series of filters. 

Alberta currently has an estimated 1.3 trillion litres of contaminated water sitting in tailings ponds.

The water contains contaminants ranging from salt and heavy metals to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and naphthenic acids.

Testing phase

Alberta and Environment and Parks' chief scientist, Fred Wrona, is leading a group of experts and scientists in the two-year pilot project. 

He says they're trying to get a better understanding of the chemical qualities of the contaminated water after it's been processed using the technology that Syncrude is proposing.

"What we have to do now is to determine whether or not that treatment technology is actually operating in the way that it should be, and, in fact, is the effluent safe for return?" he said.

The first stage of the experiment is what they call "closed loop," Wrona said.

"There is no discharge back to the river. We test the the effluent, and it goes back into the tailings pond."

Water from the Athabasca River is used by the oil industry to separate bitumen from sand and clay, or to produce steam to heat reservoirs. Once used, the water is contaminated with heavy metals and other toxic products. Since it cannot be returned to nature, it's stored in huge tailing ponds, which are not always perfectly sealed.

"I mean, that landscape with those waters as they are is basically unusable by wildlife and other organisms, including by humans," said Wrona.

"Proper reclamation procedures will hopefully bring us back to a landscape that is environmentally safe to use." 

Environmental concerns remain

Dale Marshall of the lobby group Environmental Defence says he's not confident the technology can clean the water of all toxins.

"We're talking about chemicals that are ... carcinogenic or suspected carcinogens That they're going to remove all of those chemicals from that water is hard to believe," Marshall said. "If they're able to do it, great."

But Marshall said his big concern is uncertainty around what impacts the project could have othe river ecosystem over time.

"Before they allow anything that is significant in terms of volume to be discharged in the Athabasca River, I would like to see how the water looks like after it has been treated, and whether in fact all those toxic chemicals have been taken out," he said.

"Because to me it feels like the old the adage from the 1970s, which is the solution to pollution is dilution, and getting rid of the chemicals is just diluting it by letting a little bit go in the river slowly over time."

Alberta's Minister of Environment and Parks, Jason Nixon, says his government's priority is to protect both water and Albertans.

"I don't support releasing toxic waters anywhere. The question is, through the pilot project … whether they're toxic or not, and I don't know the answer to that," he said.

Community engagement needed

Nina Lothian, director of fossil fuel research at the Pembina Institute, says more than a trillion litres of water are currently accumulating in the tailings ponds, waiting to be treated.

She says that is a huge problem, and it's the responsibility of the industry to find a solution alongside the communities who are most impacted, including Indigenous communities that live in close proximity to the oilsands — particularly downstream.

"Many of us have heard a lot about the Peace Athabasca Delta and the impacts that industrial development has caused on that very unique and precious landscape," she said.

"I think we need to approach this very carefully, and we need to approach it in strong collaboration with communities in the area and other stakeholders in order to arrive at a solution as the best solution, because it's an extremely challenging problem."

With files from Stephanie Rousseau