Oilsands water-monitoring data from government and academic studies will be reviewed by a committee of independent scientists appointed by the government of Alberta, the province announced Friday.
The panel will be made up of experts recommended by Alberta Environment and University of Alberta water expert David Schindler. The government is now in the process of contacting people and hopes to announce the members of the committee in two weeks.
Alberta's environment minister, Rob Renner, said the review could lead to changes in government policy.
"We are asking these questions without knowing what the answers will be." Renner said. "However, if the review indicates that more needs to be done to protect the watershed from industrial activity, we are committed to doing so."
The announcement comes three weeks after Premier Ed Stelmach promised the province would compare data from a recent study co-authored by Schindler that linked high levels of toxic pollutants such as mercury and cadmium in the Athabasca River to nearby oilsands mining.
But the timing of the announcement was criticized by the Alberta NDP, who accused the government of trying to make itself look good in anticipation of next week's visit to the oilsands by Oscar-winning Hollywood director James Cameron.
"Minister Renner can't tell us who's on his review panel because this announcement was cobbled together overnight," NDP MLA Rachel Notley said in a news release. "The name of the game is: 'Look busy; James Cameron's coming'.".
The joint oilsands industry-government group that currently monitors water in the area has said that elevated toxin levels in the river come from substances that occur naturally in the environment, since the water runs through oilsands deposits.
But the results of his study led Schindler to call for the federal government to start monitoring the river.
The committee is expected to finish its work by February 2011. Panel members will compare methodology used in the studies as well as the data itself.