EDMONTON - Oilsands producers are talking with the federal and Alberta governments about conditions under which water from the industry's tailings ponds could be released into the environment.

Officials say releases would only involve treated water and wouldn't happen until the end of a mine's life.

Environmentalists are watching the discussions closely and warn that quality standards for released tailings water should be high.

"If they'd be willing to take the water and dump it in the Bow River near Calgary, then perhaps," said Keith Stewart of Greenpeace.

Alberta has a zero discharge policy for the oilsands. No water affected by processing is allowed back into the Athabasca River and even rain that falls on developed sites must be collected and stored.

Most of that water is kept in tailings ponds.

The ponds — covering 170 square kilometres with a toxic blend of hydrocarbons, silt, salts and heavy metals — have been a lingering headache for the industry. Alberta's energy regulator has already had to relax on enforcing regulations about cleaning up the ponds after companies pleaded they would simply be unable to meet their targets.

But as the province develops new tailings regulations, there is general acknowledgment that something will have to be done with the water currently filling the ponds once contaminants have been removed and stored at the bottom of so-called end-pit lakes.

"(Alberta Environment) is consulting on a tailings management framework with industry and First Nations," department spokeswoman Nikki Booth said in an email. "Included in that consultation are discussions about introducing tailings water (free of the tailings) back into natural waterways at the end of a project."

Those discussions have been occurring for some time. Documents obtained under Access to Information laws refer in the summer of 2012 to "the industry request for tailings release as a management option."

Federal environment spokesman Mark Johnson confirmed that reference.

"A small number of oil and gas stakeholders ... have expressed an interest in a science-focused dialogue with experts from Environment Canada and Alberta Environment and Sustainable Development on the environmental considerations of water management, including release of tailings ponds water by the oilsands sector."

Greg Stringham of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers said the only interest he's aware of involves water in tailings ponds at the end of a mine's life.

"We're going to have extra water left over that needs to be treated and processed and put back into the environment in some sense. We've started talking about how that will happen at the end of the mine life.

"There's no current request to release anything in place."

That's small comfort, said Stewart. He points out that the reason the tailings ponds have been such an intractable problem is because it's so difficult to get impurities such as salts and heavy metals out of the water.

"The problem they've had is that they can't get the stuff out of the water and they've been trying for 40 years," he said. "For 40 years we've been hearing we're just about to solve this problem and we haven't."

Not only is the cleanup proving difficult, it's also expensive, Stewart said. He fears industry is lobbying government to allow it to release some level of process-affected water back into the environment.

Stringham said any released water would meet government standards.

"What we're looking at is the water that would be liberated from tailings during the reclamation process that would then be treated to meet all the environmental criteria, and then put back into the environment."

Booth suggested Alberta is approaching the idea with caution.

"More work is needed on treatment technology and science," she said. "If potential technology is developed that may allow for tailings water to be released into the natural environment, then it may be something government would consider at that time."

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  • Syncrude's Mildred Lake Upgrader, part of The Syncrude Project complex for oil sands processing, is pictured Monday, March 8, 2006 in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada.

  • The Syncrude oil sands extraction facility is reflected in a lake reclaimed from an old mine near the town of Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada on October 22, 2009.

  • A disused mining machine on display in front of the Syncrude oil sands extraction facility near the town of Fort McMurray in Alberta on October 22, 2009.

  • Mountains of sulphur, a waste byproduct of mining, stand at a Syncrude Canada Ltd. mining site near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2013.

  • The Suncor oilsands operation uses trucks that are 3 stories tall, weigh one million pounds, and cost 7 million dollars each.

  • Oil sits on the surface at a Suncor Energy Inc. oilsands mining operation near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2013. Photographer:

  • An aerial view of a tailings pond at the Suncor oil sands mine near the town of Fort McMurray in Alberta in 2009.

  • Mining trucks carry loads of oil laden sand at the Albian Sands oils sands project in Ft. McMurray, Alberta, Canada, on Friday, August 5, 2005

  • A large oil refinery along the Athabasca River in Alberta's Oilsands. Fort McMurray, Alberta.

  • Oils mixes with water at a tailings pond at a Suncor Energy Inc. oil sands mining operation near Fort McMurray in 2013.

  • Fort McMurray is in the heart of the world's biggest single oil deposit - the Athabasca Oil Sands, and the oil is extracted by surface mining and refined in the region. The oil production is at the heart of the economy.

  • Oil is seen at the ground's surface near Royal Dutch Shell Plc's Albian Sands mine near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2013.

  • In this Aug. 5, 2005 file photo, the Syncrude upgrader spreads out towards the horizon at the company's oil sands project in Ft. McMurray, Alberta, Canada.

  • The Mildred Lake upgrader, on the grounds of The Syncrude Project in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada is pictured from the air Monday, March 6, 2006.

  • This Tuesday, July 10, 2012 aerial photo shows a Nexen oil sands facility near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada.

  • This Sept. 19, 2011 aerial photo shows an oilsands facility near Fort McMurray, in Alberta, Canada.

  • This Sept. 19, 2011 aerial photo shows an oilsands tailings pond at a mine facility near Fort McMurray, in Alberta, Canada.

  • This Sept. 19, 2011 aerial photo shows an oilsands tailings pond at a mine facility near Fort McMurray, in Alberta, Canada.

  • The Syncrude extraction facility in the northern Alberta oil sand fields is reflected in the pool of water being recycled for re-use.

  • A night view of the Syncrude oil sands extraction facility near the town of Fort McMurray in Alberta Province, Canada on October 22, 2009.

  • Aerial view of a lake and forests in the vicinity of oil sands extraction facilities near the town of Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada on October 23, 2009.

  • Workers use heavy machinery in the tailings pond at the Syncrude oil sands extraction facility near the town of Fort McMurray in Alberta , Canada on October 25, 2009.

  • Fort McMurray is in the heart of the world's biggest single oil deposit - the Athabasca Oil Sands, and the oil is extracted by surface mining and refined in the region. The oil production is at the heart of the economy.

  • A large oil refinery in Alberta's Oilsands project. Fort McMurray, Alberta.

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