Report concludes oilsands pollution monitoring is inadequate
CALGARY — A new government-commissioned report examining conflicting water quality data from the oilsands says the current monitoring system is inadequate and that environmental impacts from industrial development in the region are largely unknown.
Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner appointed the six-member water monitoring data review committee last fall to try to resolve the conflicting water quality information found between government scientists and University of Alberta ecologist David Schindler and his colleagues.
Schindler's reports argue the oilsands industry is contaminating the environment, while the province and the industry funded Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP) have insisted their science does not support his conclusions.
The panel's report released Wednesday found that more comprehensive monitoring and greater scientific analysis are needed in the oilsands region, and that government is incapable of fully understanding the effects of bitumen operations on the environment — including the Athabasca River system.
"It is difficult to obtain a database that is sufficiently large to make any meaningful assessment of environmental risk of the concentrations of chemicals in the (river) system," says the report.
"The Alberta Environment monitoring at limited number of stations was not specifically intended to determine impacts from the oilsands operations," it adds. "The RAMP program has many monitoring sites, but the low sampling frequency limits their ability to determine impacts from oilsands operations."
The committee also found, however, that more study is needed on the environmental effects in the oilsands because the data gathered by the government and independent scientists can't necessarily be compared, as they had different objectives and were assessing different impacts.
Renner — who has repeatedly said over the past few years there's no evidence to suggest the Athabasca River system contains toxins that aren't naturally occurring — changed his tone on Wednesday upon releasing the report.
The minister said more rigorous environmental monitoring of the oilsands region is clearly needed and that a co-ordinated, cumulative effects system must be implemented.
"We need to be sure we have a more robust monitoring system," Renner told reporters.
"There is a certain degree of impact from industrial development from any area," he added. "I don't think anyone has ever suggested there is no impact."
The data review panel members included Peter Dillon, George Dixon, Charles Driscoll, Stuart Hurlbert, John Giesy and Jerome Nriagu. All six are affiliated with high-profile universities in Canada and the United States and have expertise in water-related environmental issues.
NDP environment critic Rachel Notley said the report shows the government has misled the public about the impact of oilsands development in northern Alberta.
"Albertans cannot trust this Conservative government to protect their health, their environment and ultimately the sustainability of the industry in the oilsands," she said. "It is this kind of approach to protecting our environment that jeopardizes our reputation internationally."
The government report comes about six weeks after Renner named an independent panel to revamp the monitoring system that examines the impacts of oilsands development on land, air, water and biodiversity.
Just days after the makeup of that provincial panel was announced, an American member quit saying there weren't enough scientists in the group and the Alberta government wants to muzzle free discussion.
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