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article imageAlberta, Ottawa agree to reducing oilsands environment monitoring

By Karen Graham     Aug 4, 2020 in Environment
Edmonton - Alberta has signed an agreement with the federal government that makes major cuts to environmental monitoring of the oilsands, putting monitoring of the Athabasca River and habitats at risk.
The Canadian Press has obtained a copy of the deal, signed on July 7, 2020, by top government leaders in Ottawa and Edmonton. In it, the monitoring program, initiated in 2012 by the Stephen Harper government, has been cut 25 percent, to no more than $44 million this year. It was $58 million last year and $60 million in 2018, reports Global News.
According to the new deal, there will be no fieldwork on the main branch of the Athabasca River, and no field studies on wetlands, fish or insects. This means there will be no environmental monitoring downstream of the oilsands. This provision was added to the deal even as the province is considering a proposal that would allow oilsands tailing ponds to be released into the Athabasca River.
There was actually a pilot project meant to gauge the risks imposed by tailing ponds. That project has been dropped. Water quality assessment at Wood Buffalo National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has also been scrapped, even though there are concerns over environmental degradation at the park, according to Kamloops This Week.
The Athabasca River in Jasper National Park - mOctober 2013.
The Athabasca River in Jasper National Park - mOctober 2013.
Martin Kraft ( (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Jim Herbers of the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute had his funding cut from $4 million dollars to $1.4 million this year. "Field monitoring is the biggest component of what we’re not going to be doing this year,” he said.
"The work around monitoring for amphibians, birds and mammals, that work won't be undertaken. Nor will work on tracking indicators related to plants or changes in habitat." Herbers also says he was told the reason for the cuts was to protect workers from COVID-19, according to CBC Canada.
Bill Donahue, a former senior civil servant with Alberta's science and monitoring programs, says "It's crazy" leaving the Athabasca River unmonitored.
"We've got one of the biggest industrial developments — the primary problems of which are contamination of the environment and consumption of water — and there's no downstream monitoring."
Athabasca Oil Sands NASA Earth Observatory image acquired Juli 29  2009. Note the Atabasca River flo...
Athabasca Oil Sands NASA Earth Observatory image acquired Juli 29, 2009. Note the Atabasca River flows right through the middle of the oilsands.
NASA Earth Observatory/Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon using EO-1 ALI data
Alberta's Northwest Territories Agreement
Alberta has a binding agreement with the Northwest Territories to provide environmental monitoring of the Athabasca River, which flows into the territory. Joslyn Oosenbrug of the territory's Environment Department said her government was told a deal had been reached.
"We were not provided with any detailed information about the budget," she said in an email. "The (territory) has made its concerns known about the suspension of water quality monitoring in Alberta and continues to advocate for all monitoring to resume, especially the (oilsands monitoring) program."
Marlin Schmidt, an environment critic for Alberta's NDP Opposition, sums it up best - "It's critical to protect the environment. It's also critical to show the world we can develop these resources responsibly. We're failing at both."
More about Oilsands, Alberta, Canadian government, environmental monitoring, Athabasca river
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