A high-level scientific panel has sharply criticized the water quality monitoring system in Alberta's oilsands, going so far as to say "there is no system."

The Oilsands Advisory Panel, appointed by former federal environment minister Jim Prentice, made its findings public in Ottawa on Tuesday in a joint news conference with current Environment Minister John Baird, who promised to act on the panel’s recommendations.

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VIDEO: Oilsands news conference.

The panel’s chair, Elizabeth Dowdeswell, was critical of a piecemeal approach to water quality monitoring, saying the system is fragmented with no links between data on water quality — including ground water — and air quality.

She also said there is no reliable longitudinal data that would give a solid understanding of the environmental impact of the oilsands.

"There is no holistic and comprehensive system. There is no system," said Dowdeswell, president of the Council of Canadian Academies and former executive director of the United Nations Environment Program.

"The panel was unanimous: Do we have a world class monitoring system in place? In short, no. However, we could have," she said.

The panel underlined a critical need for a new governance structure including an inter-jurisdictional steering committee, an external scientific advisory committee and sufficient resources to follow through.

Dowdeswell did not cast blame. "It’s not that anybody has had any particular ill will," she said. Rather, the present regime of water quality monitoring has just grown up as a very piecemeal system.

Response to criticism

She was one of six experts appointed to the panel in September and given a mandate by the federal government to review water data in the oilsands and make recommendations on the monitoring system.  

The other panel members were Peter Dillon of Trent University, McGill University's Subhasis Ghoshal, Andrew Miall from the University of Toronto, Joseph Rasmussen of the University of Lethbridge and Queen's University's John Smol.

Prentice convened the panel in response to criticism about water monitoring in the Athabasca watershed in northern Alberta. In particular, a peer-reviewed study published by University of Alberta water scientist David Schindler found elevated levels of cadmium, mercury, lead and other toxic elements in the Athabasca River.

This contradicted provincial government and industry scientists who claimed the toxins were naturally occurring.

Despite previous federal claims that the oilsands are properly monitored, Baird said on Tuesday that his government accepts the panel’s findings and will act on them.

"For far too long, we have heard concerns about quality of water downstream from the oilsands," he said 

'Ready to act'

"We've heard the panel loud and clear and are ready to act…. We accept this responsibility and will ensure our monitoring systems are properly and securely in place," said Baird. 

The minister said he has already directed senior officials to create a water quality monitoring plan in co-operation with the provincial government within 90 days. Once that is complete, he said the government will ask for scientific input to assess the plan, after which it will be implemented. He said monitoring data will be made public at no charge.

The government plans to use same process to examine air quality and biodiversity in the oilsands region, Baird said.

The report received high praise from David Schindler, the world-renowned water expert from the University of Alberta.

"It was blunt and very direct. Something that even a minister could read in short order and understand," he said. "The people who wrote it have impeccable credentials. I think the minister has to pay attention to it and it sounds like they will."

Schindler's peer-reviewed study in August which linked toxins in the Athabasca River to oilsands development prompted the federal and provincial governments to take a closer look at oilsands water monitoring and how water data is collected by the province and industry.

Schindler said it gives him a sense of satisfaction that other scientists have found what he learned in his study.

Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner said he appreciated the panel's work and agrees with the finding that the oilsands region needs a state-of-the-art monitoring system.

"The panel is calling for collaborative leadership. This is critical. We must work with the federal government to ensure our collective efforts are complementary as we revamp monitoring in the oilsands," Renner said in a new release.

"I, along with my department, am fully committed to working co-operatively with Minister Baird and officials from Environment Canada as we move forward."

On Monday, Renner said the province was changing how it monitors water in the oilsands. He announced that a group of independent experts will gather in January and report in June on how to best set up an environmental monitoring system.

He said the expert group will guide the province on how to implement recommendations from both the federal and provincial panels.

In September, Alberta announced its own panel of independent scientists to review the oilsands water quality monitoring system. It is due to finish its report in February.