The Alberta government, facing growing concerns about the impact of oilsands operations, is bringing together scientists to try to resolve whether the industry is poisoning surrounding rivers, lakes and groundwater.
Critics dismissed Friday’s announcement by Environment Minister Rob Renner as a hollow public relations gesture by a government afraid of what powerful Hollywood director James Cameron – a staunch environmental activist – will tell the world after he visits northern Alberta next week.
Mr. Renner said a panel of up to six experts will be selected by the government and by noted ecologist David Schindler within two weeks with a mandate to report in February.
“This is an absolutely critical issue for me,” Mr. Renner told reporters in a telephone interview from Jasper, Alta. “I need to have total and complete assurance and data before I make decisions on how best to balance environmental protection with development.
“If the review indicates that more needs to be done to protect the watershed from industrial activity, we are committed to doing so.”
The announcement comes three weeks after Mr. Schindler released a damning report on waterways in the oil sands region and on how the province monitors them. The findings were published in the prestigious, peer-reviewed Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (Oil sands development contributes elements toxic at low concentrations to the Athabasca River and it’s tributaries / PNAS September 14, 2010 vol. 107 no. 37 16178-16183)
In the article, Mr. Schindler reported his team studied river water upstream and downstream of oil sands operations. It found higher than normal levels of priority pollutant metals, including lead and mercury, which are both neurotoxins.
Mr. Schindler said the amount of metals was below levels considered dangerous to humans, but higher than acceptable for fish.
Last week, Mr. Schindler and commercial fishermen showed off diseased, discoloured, disfigured fish caught in Lake Athabasca, downstream of the oil sands. One fish had a tumour the size of a golf ball. Another was missing part of its spine.
The province has stood behind the findings of its scientists, who say Mr. Schindler’s results aren’t conclusive and that the higher concentration of metals is because of outcrops of bitumen in the area.