Mining trucks roll through the Albian Sands oilsands project in Ft. McMurray, Alta., which lies on the Athabasca River. Environment Canada operates a permanent laboratory on the Athabasca, but it doesn't test for chemicals from the oilsands. ((Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press))

For years, development of the Alberta oilsands has been plagued by controversy over whether the project is releasing deadly chemicals into the vast Athabasca River system.

Fortunately, the federal Environment Department operates a permanent laboratory on the Athabasca, downstream from the oilsands, and has been testing the water quality of the river for more than two decades.

Unfortunately, the lab has never tested for chemicals from the oilsands.

Environment Commissioner Scott Vaughan made the rather stunning revelation Tuesday in a scathing report on the government’s overall water-quality testing programs.

Vaughan found that Environment Canada is not monitoring water quality on federal lands, and even where it is conducting tests "good-quality data and information may not be available when and where it is needed."

As a result of these and other government shortcomings, the commissioner concluded: "Environment Canada is not adequately monitoring the quality and quantity of Canada’s surface water resources."

Perhaps nowhere is that more apparent than the bizarre water monitoring of the Athabasca — testing for just about everything but oilsands pollutants.

Focused on pulp and paper

Environment Canada has operated a water-quality monitoring station in the area of the oilsands since 1989, located on the Athabasca about 150 kilometres downstream.

The station was originally built to monitor the effects of the pulp-and-paper industry on the water quality and ecosystems of the river.


Pumpjacks work pumping crude oil near Halkirk, Alta. The University of Alberta says oilsands are polluting the Athabasca with mercury, arsenic, lead and 10 other potentially deadly elements. ((Larry MacDougal/Canadian Press))

As the oilsands project grew into a sprawling industrial behemoth, environmentalists and aboriginal bands in the area began to complain about possible pollution of the river, and its impact on everything from fish stocks to human cancer rates.

Despite all the growing oilsands controversy over the past two decades, Environment Canada has been monitoring the Athabasca only for pollutants associated with the pulp-and-paper industry.

Officials who helped prepare the environment commissioner’s savage report, speaking on condition of anonymity, admitted Tuesday they had no explanation for the government's lack of testing for possible deadly chemical runoff from the oilsands.

One official told CBC News: "They have been monitoring for certain metals from pulp-and-paper production … but let's face it, everyone in the world is concerned about the oilsands."

Finally, in 2009, Environment Canada conducted a study of water quality in the area and concluded that it might be useful to start testing for pollutants associated with the oilsands.

But nothing changed.

Three months ago, researchers at the University of Alberta concluded the oilsands are indeed polluting the Athabasca with mercury, arsenic, lead and 10 other potentially deadly elements.

The report contradicted claims by the Alberta government and oil companies that any chemicals in the river occur naturally.

On Sept. 30, a month after the University of Alberta report was released, then federal environment minister Jim Prentice announced the government had created an "independent advisory panel" of experts to review the situation.

According to a press release, the experts would advise the minister on "strengths and weaknesses" of federal water testing programs on the Athabasca.

The panel is scheduled to report before the end of the year.