Canada's environment minister has formed a scientific panel to examine whether Alberta's oil sands projects are polluting the Athabasca River as charged by an influential water ecologist.
Environment Minister Jim Prentice said Thursday the panel, led by a former United Nations Environment Program director, will advise him on the state of environmental research and monitoring being done in the oil sands region.
The move follows the Alberta government's announcement last week that it will form an independent panel of scientists to study the water quality of the Athabasca, which flows through the region that is the site of massive oil sands plants.
"The mandate of this advisory panel is to provide me with advice that responds to the criticism that we've been hearing about the quality of the water monitoring," Prentice told Reuters.
"Obviously you can't have good public policy if you don't have good data, and the criticisms I've been concerned about over the last several months call into question how we are doing the testing, in particular the water testing."
The initiatives follow a report co-authored by University of Alberta biologist David Schindler, which concluded that oil sands plants are sending toxins including mercury, arsenic and lead into the watershed.
Schindler sharply criticized work by the government-supported and industry-funded Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program, which has consistently said that pollution in the Athabasca River system occurs naturally.
Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner asked Schindler to choose some of the members of the provincial panel.
Prentice has said the industry must improve environmental performance while developing the oil sands, the largest crude source outside the Middle East. Its development has come under increasing attack from environmental groups.
"We need to be sure that the water-monitoring regime that we have is a critical one, that it's excellent from a scientific perspective and that it withstands scrutiny," he said.
On Wednesday, following a high-profile visit to the oil sands and Alberta aboriginal communities, James Cameron, the Canadian-born Hollywood film director, urged more independent study of the impact of development on water, wildlife and native people.
The federal government said its six-person panel will be chaired by Elizabeth Dowdeswell, former U.N. Environment Program director and under-secretary general as well as assistant deputy minister of Environment Canada.
The scientists include Peter Dillon of Trent University, Subhasis Ghoshal of McGill University, Andrew Miall of the University of Toronto, Joseph Rasmussen of the University of Lethbridge and John Smol of Queen's University.
It will examine current scientific monitoring and research, and point out its strengths and weaknesses, reporting back to Prentice within 60 days.
Simon Dyer, oil sands director of the Pembina Institute, an environmental think tank, welcomed what he called a list of credible names, but said it move could have been made a decade ago.
"It shows that the burden of evidence has grown so overwhelming -- the indefensible position of the provincial government, RAMP and their monitoring and the federal government's absence of monitoring," Dyer said. "It's come to the point where the feds and the province felt that they had to do something."