Oilsands water concerns focus of panel

Federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice has announced the appointment of a six-person advisory panel to look into the water-testing regime in the Athabasca River around Alberta's oilsands.
Federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice has appointed a panel to probe the water-testing regime in the Athabasca River around Alberta's oilsands after a study found levels of cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, silver and zinc in water and snow near or downstream from oilsands development. ((CBC))
Federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice has announced the appointment of a six-person advisory panel to look into the water-testing regime in the Athabasca River around Alberta's oilsands.

The group will advise Prentice on the current state of research and will recommend a new system, if necessary, the minister said Thursday in Ottawa. The panel has 60 days to make its recommendations.

"The purpose of the inquiry and the work of these scientist is to tell us what a state-of-the-art, world-class monitoring system should look like. To get the best scientific advice on that," Prentice said.

The announcement comes 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 Alberta and industry scientists who claimed the toxins were naturally occurring.

Schindler said he was "heartened" by Prentice's announcement.

"I'm impressed that minister Prentice could see quickly that there is a problem and that there needs to be some expert advice," he told CBC Radio in Alberta. "He could not appoint a better panel of experts."

The Pembina Institute, an environmental watchdog that has been highly critical of the Alberta and federal government's handling of the oilsands, said the panel is a "welcome surprise." But the group reiterated its call for limits to be placed on oilsands development.

'Really positive'

"It's the first time we've really seen the federal government step up to the plate and show a genuine interest in environmental impacts and so, of course, we think that's really positive," Pembina policy analyst Terra Simieritsch told CBC News in an interview from Calgary.

"However, we continue to see governments approve more development in the oilsands arena, despite the fact that there are signs pointing to this type of pollution."

Alberta's environment minister said he's willing to work with the federal government on oilsands water monitoring.

At a news conference in Calgary, Rob Renner said he recognizes the federal government has some jurisdiction over such issues in Alberta, but stressed that the province has to lead the way in water-quality monitoring and research.

He's concerned about the possibility of duplicate information since the federal panel will be looking at essentially the same issues as the province, Renner said.

He said he would be in contact with Prentice to talk about those concerns and explore the idea of a combined review.

Prentice's advisory panel is to be chaired by Elizabeth Dowdeswell, president of the Council of Canadian Academies and former executive director of the United Nations Environment Program.

The other panellists are:

  • Peter Dillon, a professor in environmental and resource studies and the department of chemistry at Trent University who directs the school's water-quality centre in Peterborough, Ont.
  • Subhasis Ghoshal, a professor at McGill University in Montreal whose expertise is in the area of soil and groundwater contamination by hydrocarbon pollutants.
  • Andrew Miall, the Gordon Stollery chair in basin analysis and petroleum geology at the University of Toronto.
  • Joseph Rasmussen, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Lethbridge and a Canada Research Council chair in aquatic ecosystems.
  • John Smol, a biology professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., and the holder of the Canada Research chair in environmental change.