The appointment of a prestigious six-member scientific panel to study the state of water monitoring in the oil sands has ended Ottawa's laissez-faire approach to the mega project and left the government of Alberta, a petro state dependent on bitumen revenue, in a state of "surprise."
Earlier this month federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice promised to assemble an independent group to review the strengths and weaknesses in project's controversial industry-administered water monitoring program (the Regional Aquatic Monitoring Program) after he held a private meeting with famed water ecologist David Schindler and Northwest Territories government biologist Erin Kelly in Edmonton.
"I asked Prentice, an avid fly fisherman, how many deformed fish he had caught in his lifetime and he paused for a moment and said, 'None,'" says Schindler. "And then Kelly and I showed him some pictures of fish recently caught from Lake Athabasca." The fish, netted downstream from the oil sands, included white fish and suckers with tumors, curved spines and stubby snouts.
Schindler, one of the world's most respected water scientists, calls Prentice "a smart guy" and welcomes the minister's announcement as a development that could lead to a credible science based monitoring program on the embattled river.
Schindler and Kelly are the principal authors of two peer reviewed studies published by the U.S. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) that squarely challenged industry and government claims that all pollution in the region comes from naturally eroding bitumen deposits.
Their 2009 and 2010 PNAS papers documented a significant release of toxic heavy metals and fish-deforming hydrocarbons above legal limits into the Athabasca River from bitumen refinery air pollution and watershed destruction.
As Prentice later told the Globe and Mail after his meeting with Schindler and Kelly: "I will tell you the photographs of the fish I've seen are disgusting. As somebody who's been a fly fisherman my whole life, you know, this is something we need to take seriously and get to the bottom of." Prentice, who asked Schindler for advice on the make-up of a scientific panel, then promised swift action.
The panel includes three top scientists specifically recommended by Schindler: Peter J. Dillon, a chemist and one of the country's top acid rain experts; Andrew D. Miall, one of Canada's foremost petroleum geologists; and John P. Smol, a pioneer in studying the impacts of acid rain, nutrients and climate change on aquatic systems. The panel will make its recommendations within 60 days.
Meanwhile Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner, a critic of low carbon fuels, called the announcement "a surprise." After initially denying that any pollution could come from industrial sources, Renner reluctantly agreed to form a committee to review environmental data on the river with a Sept. 24th press release that referred to PNAS, the top science journal on the continent, as the "Proceedings of the National Assembly of Science."
That Prentice appointed a panel before Renner, suggests that the federal government takes the results of peer reviewed science much more seriously than the province. Moreover, a group of high-profile federal scientists that reviewed the industry-administered oil sands monitoring program in 2004 found it completely inadequate to the task. Industry says it has addressed more than 60 deficiencies in its program since then.
"If the government can put the science in place to guide good public policy, it will make the difference between this project becoming a blessing or a curse," adds Schindler.