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Environment ministers tour new oil sands monitoring sites

In this file photo, mining trucks carry loads of oil laden sand after being loaded by huge shovels at the Albian Sands oils sands project in Ft. McMurray, Alberta, Canada,

JEFF MCINTOSH/AP

The federal and Alberta environment ministers are getting a first-hand look at oil sands monitoring sites around Fort McMurray.

Peter Kent and provincial counterpart Diana McQueen are touring two sites being built in response to demands for better environmental oversight in the oil sands region.

Several dozen new sites are being added to better keep track of what impact industry development is having on the air, land and water.

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A plan for how monitoring will be governed, how much independence it will have and who will fund the work is expected to be released in the next few weeks.

There are already scientists in place setting up new sites.

Mr. Kent and Ms. McQueen announced a radically revamped oil sands monitoring plan in February. It came after years of criticism from scientists and others that the provincial government was doing a poor job of overseeing environmental changes caused by extensive energy development in northern Alberta.

Those charges fuelled increasing opposition to the oil sands both in Canada and abroad. That opposition has grown to the point where it is now affecting the province's attempts to increase its energy exports.

The ministers outlined a three-year plan that aims to increase the number of monitoring sites by more than 50 per cent. The new approach includes looking for hazardous chemicals ignored under the old plan and extends the geographic reach into Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories.

Eventually, monitors are also to examine biodiversity, animal toxicity, plant health and habitat disruption.

The plan is estimated to eventually cost about $50 million a year.

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As recommended, scientists are already looking at more sites, more often and for more contaminants.

Scientists have added four new water monitoring sites for this field season and will increase inspections at five others. Snow sampling was conducted last winter for the first time.

Airborne hydrocarbons will be evaluated by 17 new monitoring stations.

The work is being shared by federal, provincial and independent scientists.

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