APTN National News
OTTAWA–Environment Minister Jim Prentice’s announcement Thursday he had appointed a six-person expert panel to study the effectiveness of pollution monitoring in the Athabasca River basin signals a significant shift for the Calgary politician.
Prentice recently dismissed suggestions there was a link between the tar sands and high levels of pollutants in the Athabasca and connected waterways.
The panel’s creation comes as Canada faces increasing international criticsm over the tar sands.
Prentice, when questioned by reporters Thursday, denied that the recent visits by senior U.S. politicians and Hollywood director James Cameron, along with a First Nations delegation’s trip to Washington D.C., had forced his hand.
“I am doing this because it is in the national interest we do this,” said Prentice.
Prentice said the panel would be chaired by Elizabeth Dowdeswell, a former director of the UN’s environment program. She’s joined by scientists Peter Dillon, Subhasis Ghoshal, Andrew Miall, Joseph Rasmussen and John Smol.
All are leading lights in their fields, said Prentice.
They are expected to report back to Prentice within 60 days and their findings will be made public.
“The purpose of their inquiry is to make recommendations on what a state-of-the-art water monitoring regime should look like,” said Prentice.
Prentice also mentioned the work of University of Alberta aquatics ecologist David Schindler as having an impact on his decision to create the review panel.
“I met with…Schindler, I’ve read his peer reviewed article, I have spoken to him about his criticism,” said Prentice. “Since I became minister of environment I have had ongoing questions of my department about the water monitoring, how it’s done and the kinds of testing we are getting.”
Schindler’s studies have linked waste produce by the tar sands to the death and deformation of fish in the Athabasca.
Schindler, along with health professionals, First Nations leaders and area residents held a press conference earlier this month displaying deformed fish.
Prentice said at the time that he would be taking a closer look at the issue.
Prentice, however, was dismissing Schindler’ work only a few months ago.
In an interview published in the spring edition of Diplomat Magazine, Prentice said he didn’t buy a Schindler study linking increased airborne particle levels of cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic compounds and tar sands operations.
“I think at this point, it’s fair to say that science doesn’t bear them out,” said Prentice, responding to a question specifically about Schindler. “It doesn’t bear out the suggestion that the tailings ponds are leaching into the river and causing health consequences.”
Prentice, however, said he needed be “vigilant” about the issue. Prentice also said his department had “scaled up the monitoring we have on the river.”
In the Diplomat interview, Prentice downplayed the impact of the tar sands, saying environmentalists were exaggerating the scope of the development.
“I think it’s important to note that the entire surface disturbance of the oilsands is 580 square kilometres,” said Prentice. “You’ll read some explanations that there will be a disturbance the size of Florida. That just isn’t the case. A very small portion of the oilsands is available to surface mining. So, 580 kilometres compares to portions of suburbia in some of our cities. If you compare it to the scope and volume of the boreal forest in Canada, it’s a very, very small amount of land that is being disturbed on the surface basis.”