EDMONTON — Assertions that pollution in the Athabasca River don’t come from the oilsands industry have to be backed up by better science, says federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice.
Prentice said Tuesday that federal scientists have always told him that any contaminants such as lead or mercury in the Athabasca River are naturally occurring, not from industry.
“That has consistently been what I’ve been told as minister by the federal scientists,” he said from Saint-Jean-sur-le-Richelieu, Que., where he was taking French lessons.
But Prentice added he’s aware of scientific controversy on the issue.
“There are scientists who appear to disagree with this assertion,” he said.
On Monday, University of Alberta ecologist David Schindler published a paper that he said proved that heavy metals including lead and mercury are being released from oilsands facilities into the air and water of northern Alberta. Those and other metals are already above levels considered hazardous to fish in some areas, he said.
Schindler said the study’s conclusions justify an increased federal presence in monitoring and enforcement of the oilsands.
Federal Liberal environment critic David McGuinty agreed.
“The federal government has to exercise its exclusive constitutional responsibility and enforce its existing environmental standards,” he said in Baddeck, N.S., at a Liberal caucus retreat.
“That means Fisheries Act prosecutions if required, that means exercising the powers they have at their fingertips. Minister Prentice has got to stop bobbing and weaving now and he’s got to do his job.”
But Ottawa has already increased its presence in the oilsands, said Prentice.
He said federal money has helped increase groundwater monitoring in the region from 25 to 100 sites.
He also said Environment Canada has paid $1.6 million for crucial technology now at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon that will enable scientists to “fingerprint” contaminant chemicals found in the air and water, allowing them to say definitively whether they came from naturally occurring bitumen deposits or from industrial emissions.
Because air and water pollution create interprovincial impacts, they come under federal jurisdiction. But before it takes any action on contaminants, Prentice said it’s vital to understand their sources.
“I have been pushing and challenging what I have been told on the science,” he said. “We have to be certain there are no pollutants in the Athabasca River. ”
Meanwhile, no members of Alberta’s governing Tories have responded to the report. Premier Ed Stelmach strode silently past reporters Tuesday after participating in an opening ceremony for a new biofuel facility in Edmonton.
However, New Democrat MLA Rachel Notley wondered why Conservative politicians have long maintained there are no contaminants from industry in the Athabasca when an Alberta Environment spokeswoman acknowledged Monday that that’s where at least some of the heavy metals probably originate.
“What we have appears to be a contradiction, where we have officials of the ministry of environment acknowledging that they knew there was contamination contrasted with statements by the premier and the minister in the legislature insisting that there is not,” said Notley.
“On the surface, it doesn’t look good for the level of trust of any statement that come from this government with respect to environmental matters.”