Edmonton·Updated

Alberta moving forward on two new plans to maintain river water quality

Alberta is proposing new water quality monitoring plans and a review of the problematic coal mining contaminant, selenium.

Critics say plans may do little to improve water quality in Alberta

Alberta is proposing two new plans to monitor water quality on several rivers in the province, including the North Saskatchewan River. (David Bajer/CBC)

Alberta is proposing two new plans to monitor water quality on the North Saskatchewan, Battle and Upper Athabasca rivers.

Environment Minister Jason Nixon said Tuesday at a press conference in Edmonton the province will establish clear objectives to monitor and maintain water quality after public consultations.

"This level of oversight helps us better understand the cumulative effects of various activities on the landscape which is essential to making informed decisions in the future about land and water management and resource development," Nixon said.

The new frameworks would set limits for contaminants that would require the government to act if those thresholds are exceeded. Right now, there are only guidelines to prevent harm to aquatic life.

Consultations are set to begin in July and run until mid-September.

Nixon said the government will also review how it manages selenium, a coal mining contaminant that seeps into water and is toxic in higher concentrations to fish and other wildlife. The review will look at how mining is regulated, from project approval to cleanup.

Nixon's announcements came as the government released a report showing contamination from three former mine sites persists in the McLeod River south of Whitecourt.

The report found selenium levels in 2016 were as high as six times the limit guidelines recommend.

A government news release said the findings demonstrate "why Alberta must maintain and improve monitoring and regulatory processes to protect its water."

Nixon said the selenium review will also give Albertans a place to express their concerns about the effects of coal mining exploration and expansion on water.

Heavy equipment operates at an open-pit coal mine in B.C., just west of the Alberta border. The Alberta government has been under firing for its rescinding, then reinstatement of a 45-year-old coal policy regulating mining on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. (Robson Fletcher/CBC)

The government has come under fire for its handling of a 1976 provincial coal policy that restricts mining and exploration in much of the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains.

After cancelling, then reinstating the policy, the government also took heat from critics for appointing a coal panel whose mandate excluded the effects of mines on watersheds.

Alberta water quality regulation weak, say critics

Observers concerned about water quality in Alberta say monitoring and regulation of industry has long been inadequate. They say these latest steps are unlikely to prompt major improvements.

Bill Donahue, an independent consultant who was previously in charge of environmental monitoring for the Alberta government, said the province doesn't do enough quality or water flow monitoring to properly plan for any watershed.

He said monitoring budgets outside of the oilsands were cut by both the NDP and UCP governments.

Researchers have known about selenium's damaging effects on fish for at least 15 years, yet, the government still approved more mines, he said.

"The right and left hand don't know what they're doing when it comes to the monitoring and the regulation and that's intentional," he said.

Meaningful change would involve tougher standards for mines, he said.

Mine owners have not been held accountable for the environmental damage they cause or for exceeding water quality guidelines, said Ian Urquhart, conservation director with the Alberta Wilderness Association.

Increased monitoring would be a positive move, but measurements only matter if the government is willing to act on them, he said.

Mines have yet to develop the technology that prevents contamination, and what levels are safe are unknown, he said.

NDP environment critic Marlin Schmidt said the government should halt coal mining in the eastern slopes, which would prevent selenium from building up in the water in the first place.

"(Nixon is) trying to make it look like he's doing something," Schmidt said. "And he's trying to create the political cover for allowing coal mining down the road."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Janet French is a provincial affairs reporter with CBC Edmonton. She has also worked at the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca

With files from the Canadian Press

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