Alberta Government Agrees Environmental Impact of Tar Sands Warrants Further Investigation

A report released by the Water Monitoring Data Review Committee earlier this month refuted previous Alberta Environment and industry studies on the serious threat of water contamination stemming from tar sands operations.

Environment Minister Rob Renner responded by promising to work to create a “better, more transparent and credible monitoring system in Alberta” that would assess the impacts of tar sands development on the Athabasca watershed. Renner’s tune has changed since declaring that heavy metals and other pollutants were naturally-occurring in the river, a view supported by the industry-funded Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP) study.

The RAMP study faced a brief scientific feud in 2009 when Dr. David Schindler and Erin Kelly of the University of Alberta performed independent studies directly linking significant concentrations of Polycyclic Aromatic Compounds (PACs) and heavy metals to tar sands development. The independent studies also criticized the RAMP for committing over 10 years of inconsistent sampling. Given that water monitoring didn’t begin until years after the multi-billion dollar tar sands project ensued, it was difficult for any of the studies to draw a clear picture of environmental impacts.

The Schindler study voiced concerns that RAMP had “fostered the perception that high-intensity mining and processing have no serious environmental impacts”- in other words, that RAMP’s questionable science had served as industry spin. Schindler recommended forming an independent board of experts to uphold the quality of the science.

Rather than sit on the sidelines, Premier Ed Stelmach worked with Schindler to form the Water Monitoring Data Review Committee in September 2010. The Committee was made up of independent scientists recommended both by Schindler and by the government. It reviewed the studies previously done by both Schindler and by RAMP. While the recent report identified limitations in both the Schindler and the RAMP studies, they agreed with Schindler’s conclusion that PACs and heavy metals are being introduced into the environment by tar sands development.

The Committee also agreed that the Alberta Environment and RAMP studies were suspect, as “the RAMP program has many monitoring sites, but the low sampling frequency limits their ability to determine impacts from oilsands operations,” and the “Alberta Environment report…was not intended to assess impacts of the oil sands on the river.” Additionally, they found discrepancies that suggested there were more pollutants than Alberta Environment or RAMP chose to report.

For some time, the Alberta government has ignored community concerns about water quality and health issues related to tar sands development. For example, they failed to investigate the high cancer rates in the community of Fort Chipewyan and other areas until the Schindler and Kelly study was publicized. Even then, the health study was managed by a committee with industry connections, raising serious questions about conflict of interest.

The recent concessions by Alberta Environment suggest that they may be willing to recognize valid science, and possibly even admit they have been wrong. Although overcoming outright denial is a positive step, it is unlikely that the government will actually act on any new findings. When the Alberta government says “more study is needed,” it sounds like they are buying more time to perfect their ongoing tar sands spin campaign.

On the positive side, the Alberta Government can no longer accuse communities like Chipewyan of ignoring science - industry and government science vindicating the tar sands - when citizens voice their concerns. The question remains whether those voices will travel over the clamour of the tar sands industrial lobby.