By Hannah Hoag

A panel of top Canadian scientists has scrutinized research on the health and environmental effects of oil-sands development in northern Alberta, and found exaggerated claims for its impact on health. It has also identified weakness in monitoring and inadequate evidence to support some remediation technologies now in place. The panel, convened by the Royal Society of Canada (RSC), finds fault with the media and environmental groups but most of its criticism focuses on the industry-funded body responsible for monitoring oil-sands and the Alberta and federal governments.

The report, released today, rebuts the claim made by John O'Connor, a local physician and afterwards, by environmental groups such as ForestEthics, that the elevated cancer rates seen in the northern Alberta community of Fort Chipewyan are due to exposure to oil-sands contaminants from industrial activity further up the Athabasca River.

The RSC review was commissioned in October 2009 to cast an independent eye on some of the controversial health and environmental statements made about the industry. The panel reviewed hundreds of peer-reviewed papers and other studies.

"Contaminant exposures cannot explain the excess cancer rate," says Steve Hrudey, an emeritus professor in environmental health research at the University of Alberta in Edmonton and the panel's chair. "We don't question the numbers of cancer cases but the air-quality data and the water-quality monitoring data don't support that."

The panel assessed the operation and reclamation of tailings ponds that hold mining debris, environmental regulatory performance, and the feasibility of reclamation. They also looked at the impacts of oil-sands development on regional water supply, water quality and ground-water quantity; local air quality; and levels of greenhouse-gas emissions.

Tailings grow

The number and size of tailings ponds, which contain sand, silt, clay, minerals and chemicals left over from bitumen extraction, continue to grow in the region and currently cover about 130 square kilometres. Recent studies found that the high levels of naphthenic acids seen in some pond effluent can halt fish reproduction, says Glen Van Der Kraak, a fish toxicologist at the University of Guelph in Ontario and a panel member.

A lot depends on tailing ponds being cleaned by the industry, says Van Der Kraak. "Industry needs to demonstrate this will be a viable long-term option."

Oil-sands operators are also required by law to return the land they disturb to its original state, whether meadows, wetlands or forests, before development. But such land reclamation is not keeping pace with development, the panel writes. More than 600 square kilometres of land have been disturbed by oil-sands mining in the region.

"Land reclamation is a huge issue because of the land area disturbed and the intensity of the disturbance," says Anne Naeth, a restoration ecologist at the University of Alberta and a panel member. "There's a high potential for successful reclamation, and interesting work on the development of peat lands and bogs."

To date, only 1 square kilometre has been reclaimed and certified by the Alberta provincial government. According to the panel, another 70 square kilometres have been reclaimed, but not certified. Land reclamation can be a decades-long process for forest ecosystems, but even after land has been restored, a company may delay the certification process because if it passes, the company loses access to the land. Backing the warnings of others, including the auditor general of Alberta, the report says that the public could end up footing the bill for reclamation because companies have not posted enough financial security.

Requiring attention

The panel recommends the industry-funded Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program raise the standards of its biological monitoring programs and make its data accessible to the public.

The report also criticizes the environmental-impact assessment process. International practices are not being implemented, nor are the impacts being quantified, says panel member André Plourde, an economist at the University of Alberta. Both the federal and provincial governments need to review guidelines promoted by international agencies, such as the World Bank, and industrial associations.

Alberta's environment minister Rob Renner said in a statement that the report "raises a number of issues that require attention -- some of which are already being addressed". The actions that the provincial government has already taken include developing a better understanding of the cumulative impacts of development over the region and updating reclamation criteria, standards and reporting requirements, he said.

The 400-page RSC report is the most comprehensive evaluation of tar-sands science and regulation to date. It is the first in a series on the environmental and health impacts of Canada's oil-sands operations expected to be released over the next few months. Two other panels -- one federal and one provincial -- have been convened to assess RAMP and its results, which have been questioned. The federal environment agency, Environment Canada, will release its report on 16 December.