A question of credibility

There are toxins in the Athabasca watershed. Lead, mercury, cadmium, copper, nickel and silver, among others heavy metals, some of which are extremely poisonous at low levels, contaminate its land, air and water.

There are toxins in the Athabasca watershed.

Lead, mercury, cadmium, copper, nickel and silver, among others heavy metals, some of which are extremely poisonous at low levels, contaminate its land, air and water.

The scientists agree on that much.

What they disagree on is where the toxins come from, the concentration and whether the levels are rising.

On one hand, there is David Schindler and his colleagues at the University of Alberta. Their independent, peer-reviewed study argues oilsands operations are releasing metals into Northern Alberta’s air and water. The levels are not a threat to human health yet, but they are already above levels considered hazardous to fish, Schindler concludes.

That’s bad news for the 1,000 or so First Nations and Métis residents of Fort Chipewyan, who rely on the watershed for much of their food and water. One Alberta government study suggests cancer rates in the community are already 30 per cent higher than they should be. The government is at a loss to explain the result; the Elders aren’t, fingering the oilsands operations 200 km upstream as the source.

On the other hand, there are the scientists who represent the Government of Alberta. They assert the erosion of naturally occurring bitumen deposits, not industry, are responsible for the toxins. Moreover, the levels of the toxins are neither rising nor high enough to be of concern, they conclude.

Who is right? Premier Ed Stelmach says he would like to get to the bottom of the disparity. He’s asked Schindler to sit down with the government’s scientists to figure out why there is such a difference between the data.

Stelmach’s conciliatory gesture toward Schindler would be more meaningful if the government’s data was more credible.

A 2004 peer review of the government’s Regional Aquatic Monitoring Program first five-year report was less than stellar. They found problems in “lack of details of methods, failure to describe rationales for program changes, examples of inappropriate statistical analysis, and unsupported conclusions.”

In short, the province’s environmental monitoring was deeply flawed.

The program is undergoing another peer review. Schindler sees no point in waiting for the result. He says it’s time the federal government stepped in to protect the river.

Environment Minister Jim Prentice says federal scientists have always told him that contaminants in the Athabasca are naturally occurring, although he is aware some scientists disagree.

As for stepping in to protect the river, Prentice claims Environment Canada is already playing a more active role monitoring groundwater.

Schindler’s study is the latest to challenge the province’s environmental monitoring in the region. Others are certain to follow.

If the Government of Alberta is genuinely interested in debating scientific findings with the likes of Schindler, improving the Regional Aquatic Monitoring Program’s independence and scientific credibility is a must. And that means forming conclusions based on sound research techniques and data collection instead of relying on figures supplied by industry.

Until then, the province is in no position to reassure Athabasca watershed residents that the toxins present in the region are neither rising nor high enough to be of concern.

Cameron Kennedy is an Advocate editor.