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Oil sands leaking contaminants into Alberta watersheds

Tailing ponds can be seen at the Athabaska Oil Sands north of Fort McMurray, Alberta in an aerial photograph Aug. 31, 2010.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

A scientific panel has backed research that indicates oil sands development is releasing contaminants into northern Alberta watersheds.

The panel also concludes that government monitoring programs weren't even trying to determine if the industry was polluting the Athabasca River.

Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner said the results from the panel's review will be used in an ongoing redesign of how the province keeps track of industry's impact on land and water.

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But one of the University of Alberta scientists whose study led to the panel said it's probably already too late to get a true picture of how energy development has affected the region.

"It's nearly impossible at this point," David Schindler said Wednesday after the panel's findings were released by the Environment Department.

The six-member, government-appointed scientific panel's task was to try to explain why official accounts of pollution in the area clashed so sharply with those of Dr. Schindler and his co-authors.

Alberta has long said that contamination in the Athabasca River is stable, at low levels, and comes from eroding oil sands deposits along the riverbank.

But independent researchers, in papers published last year in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, traced hydrocarbons and heavy metals found in the land and water directly to industrial smokestack emissions and found that they may already be at levels toxic to fish.

The panel backed the independent results.

"We did agree with their conclusions as far they went," said John Giesy, one of the panel's co-chairmen, although he added that more study is needed before there's a definite answer on how much industrial pollution ends up on the land and in the river.

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Dr. Giesy called Dr. Schindler's data "preliminary and approximate."

"Those have not been followed up and they have not been tested," he said. "You can draw those conclusions from their data, but to do it you have to make some assumptions."

Government data were only designed to measure what contaminant loads were - not where they came from, Dr. Giesy said.

"What the ministry was trying to do was collect information relative to water-quality standards. They weren't looking at the question of relative contributions from natural sources and from industrial sources."

Contamination in the Athabasca is well under human health guidelines.

Mr. Renner acknowledged there has to be a more co-ordinated system for monitoring.

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"When we have individual organizations now that are responsible for water, another organization responsible for air, they don't necessarily co-ordinate their activities," he said. "When you want to talk about whether or not there are adverse impacts on water from air, you have to put together a monitoring plan that would co-ordinate those two activities."

The Alberta government has been reworking its environmental monitoring since it was harshly criticized by several scientific panels. Mr. Renner said the new approach will give Albertans a clear picture of both the current state of the environment and how cumulative impacts are building over time.

Dr. Schindler said such a result is unlikely, given the region's long history of intensive energy development and the quality of environmental monitoring so far. There simply aren't enough unaffected areas in the oil sands region to know what things were like before development, he suggested, and what data does exist from those days is largely useless.

"It's tragic that we haven't had good science in developing this resource from Day 1."

Rachel Notley, environment critic for the province's New Democrats, said Mr. Renner is backtracking on previous claims that its monitoring was adequate and that river hydrocarbons were all natural.

"The minister can try to rewrite history, but the record shows that while the Tories barged ahead on development, their commitment to environmental protection was in spin only," she said.

The government's environmental failures are undermining international confidence in Alberta's oil and putting jobs at risk, she added.

Several studies over the last few years have raised concerns about contamination in the oil sands region. And Dr. Schindler has published another paper showing pollution is nearly five times greater and twice as widespread as industry figures say.

Other studies suggest greenhouse gas emissions from the oil sands are being underestimated by nearly a quarter. One paper pegged increased soil acidification on industry.

U.S. researchers have said oil sands mines, roads and other facilities are destroying so much bird habitat that as many as 166 million fewer songbirds could be flying North American skies within 50 years.

An Environment Canada study found levels of toxic mercury in the eggs of water birds downstream from the oil sands seem to have grown by nearly 50 per cent over the last three decades, with at least some of that coming from the Athabasca.

The Canadian Press

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