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NEWS: Federal recommendations on water monitoring in tar sands coming

CBC reports this evening that, “Water (in proximity to the tar sands in Alberta) is currently monitored by a joint oilsands industry-provincial government group known as the Regional Aquatic Monitoring Program. However, that system has come under strong criticism by environmentalists and some scientists, including world-renowned water expert David Schindler from the University of Alberta. Schindler linked toxic materials in the Athabasca River to oilsands development in a peer-reviewed study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in August.”

Now, “Alberta is revamping how it monitors water in the oilsands, according to an announcement made by the province’s environment minister one day before a federally appointed panel reports its findings on the issue. A group of independent experts will gather in January 2011 and report to the province in June on how to best set up an environmental monitoring system for northern Alberta, which may be expanded later for the rest of the province. …The new panel announced Monday will also guide the province on how to implement recommendations from both the provincial and federal panels.”

“The province’s announcement comes as the Oilsands Advisory Panel appointed by former federal environment minister Jim Prentice gets set to report on its findings Tuesday morning in Ottawa. The panel was announced in September, one week after the province announced its own panel to review water data in the oilsands. The federal panel will report on research and is expected to make recommendations on the monitoring regime.”

Postmedia News adds that, “Although Environment Minister John Baird has not responded to questions about the review, it may provide fresh impetus for Ottawa to wade into how Alberta safeguards its waterways.”

That article notes that, “Just over half RAMP’s steering committee is made up of industry representatives, joined by municipal, provincial and first nations leaders. The body acts on industry’s expertise and the recommendations of industry-paid contractors. Much of the raw data collected by RAMP is kept private, deemed proprietary because of the industry funding.”

The Globe and Mail reported on September 18 that, “Canada’s Environment Minister (Jim Prentice) will review the Alberta agency responsible for overseeing water quality in rivers around the province’s oil sands, including the Athabasca River. …He’s going to commission a Canada-wide panel of researchers to review whether the model used by Alberta’s Regional Aquatic Monitoring Program is appropriate. The agency is led by industry and the provincial government, but is criticized by environmentalists as toothless.” The panel is expected to give their recommendations to Prentice “within the next two months”, so presumably no later than November 17. (In fact, it took more than three months to present the recommendations to the minister.)

David Schindler, who has consistently raised concerns about RAMP, says, “I am hopeful that EC (Environment Canada) will take over the monitoring, but as I told the Minister, they will need new resources to do the job well.”

The minister’s decision to review RAMP was prompted by the discovery of deformed fish downstream of the tar sands. More on that in ‘NEWS: O’Connor raises concerns about deformed fish near tar sands’ at

A December 2009 campaign blog at notes that the Canadian Press reported: “(A) study (that suggests pollution from Alberta’s oilsands is nearly five times greater and twice as widespread as industry figures say), published in the U.S.-based Proceedings of National Academy of Science, also takes direct aim at Alberta’s monitoring program. ‘Our study confirms the serious defects of the (regional aquatic monitoring program),’ it says. ‘More than 10 years of inconsistent sampling design, inadequate statistical power and monitoring-insensitive responses have missed major sources of (contamination) to the Athabasca watershed. …(David) Schindler said nothing has changed in the province’s monitoring program since it was criticized in a 2004 review.” E & E News adds that, “The (Alberta) government has relied in part on the industry-funded joint Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP) to monitor aquatic ecosystems near the oil sands sites. But RAMP lacks scientific oversight and keeps its methods and its data confidential, the study said. …RAMP has not measured PACs for several years after its tests revealed little or no water pollution, Schindler said. …RAMP should submit to oversight by an independent board of experts and make its data available for public scrutiny, the authors said.”