Oilsands water monitoring inadequate: panel

A panel of experts says Alberta has failed to properly measure how oilsands development has affected rivers and lakes in the region.

A panel of experts says Alberta has failed to properly measure how oilsands development has affected rivers and lakes in the region.

The provincial government set up an aquatics monitoring program in 1997 to detect changes in water quality and in fish that might be due to industrial development.

A report by scientists commissioned to do a peer review of the program says it hasn't done its job and isn't capable of doing it.

"The ... program has not met this objective," reads the report released Monday. "The program is currently incapable of detecting regional trends and cumulative effects because of the program design."

The panel also says there hasn't been enough information collected to properly measure the environmental impact of oilsands projects.

The aquatics monitoring program is run by the province and energy industry companies that operate in northern Alberta. There's been some input from the federal government.

A program spokesman thanked the scientists for the report and said their findings and recommendations will be considered.

"We asked for an independent scientific assessment of our program by the review panel on behalf of our stakeholders and Albertans in general," Brenda Miskimmin said.

"The peer review report suggests more work needs to be done in the area of aquatic monitoring in the lower Athabasca region."

David Schindler, a University of Alberta water biologist, said the report reiterates what scientists have been saying for years.

He calls the program a "huge failure" and hopes the critical review will spur governments to set up properly funded monitoring that will include top scientists who are independent of government and industry.

Schindler said the report indicates that suggestions by Alberta politicians that oilsands development has been environmentally benign aren't true.

"It is very upsetting to find that since 1997 they have been unable to launch and execute a reasonable program," Schindler said.

"I think it is tragic. There has been a lot of money wasted on this program. It has been used as the basis to tell us things that are not true. We have to ensure that this time we get the system right."

Schindler said he is not convinced that will happen.

Last Thursday, the Alberta government appointed a committee to design a credible way to monitor the environmental impact of the oilsands. The committee includes the former head of pipeline giant TransCanada Corp. and an official with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

Just before Christmas, federal Environment Minister John Baird ordered Environment Canada to set up a new water-quality monitoring system.

Baird made the announcement after another group of scientists determined the public has no clear idea what the impact of th oilsands has been because of a lack of data.

Schindler said after more than decade of poor performance, Alberta's program can't just be tinkered with.

"It is an absolute disgrace. There is nothing here that can be fixed. It needs to be scrapped and replaced with a reasonable program. And we need the best brains in the country."