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Gov't scientist admits he misled public about oil sands

A senior Alberta government scientist has apologized for attempting to discredit the authors of a report that raised “urgent” concerns about oil sands pollution.

“(i) You did not lie (ii) You did not choose to remove data from your study,” reads a letter signed by Dr. Preston McEachern, an administrator with Alberta Environment. “The statements in my presentations that you did these things were false and I regret very much that I made these statements.”

Last October, The Open Biology Journal published a scientific study by Dr. Kevin Timoney and Peter Lee. Its aim was to discuss the potentially negative effects of Alberta’s oil sands industry.

“The extent to which tar sands pollutants are affecting ecosystem and public health deserves immediate and systematic study,” the report concluded. “Short of this, the projected tripling of tar sands activities over the next decade may result in unacceptably large and unforeseen impacts.”

McEachern attacked the report during a University of Alberta presentation this March, implying that it was filled with “lies”.

He alleged that the authors had removed data from 1985, 2003 and 2004 – numbers relating to mercury contamination in the Athabasca River. Those statements were posted on several websites with oil industry connections, including that of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

McEachern did not respond when the authors contacted him about the allegations.

They then hired a lawyer, threatening legal action unless he apologized and compensated them for legal costs. McEachern retracted his statements on June 11, 2010. He wrote the authors a cheque for $1000.

“I apologize for the statements made about you in and during my PowerPoint presentations,” he wrote. McEachern promised to refrain from repeating his allegations.

Study author Timoney told the Tyee he’s both relieved and disturbed.

“It means the record has been set straight,” he said. “We did not mislead anyone. In fact, Dr. McEachern misled the public.”

Geoff Dembicki reports for the Tyee.

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