The Alberta government, facing growing concerns about the impact of oil sands operations, is bringing together scientists to try to resolve whether the industry is poisoning surrounding rivers, lakes and groundwater.
Critics dismissed Friday's announcement by Environment Minister Rob Renner as a hollow public relations gesture by a government afraid of what powerful Hollywood director James Cameron - a staunch environmental activist - will tell the world after he visits northern Alberta next week.
Mr. Renner said a panel of up to six experts will be selected by the government and by noted ecologist David Schindler within two weeks with a mandate to report in February.
"This is an absolutely critical issue for me," Mr. Renner told reporters in a telephone interview from Jasper, Alta. "I need to have total and complete assurance and data before I make decisions on how best to balance environmental protection with development.
"If the review indicates that more needs to be done to protect the watershed from industrial activity, we are committed to doing so."
The announcement comes three weeks after Mr. Schindler released a damning report on waterways in the oil sands region and on how the province monitors them. The findings were published in the prestigious, peer-reviewed Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
In the article, Mr. Schindler reported his team studied river water upstream and downstream of oil sands operations. It found higher than normal levels of priority pollutant metals, including lead and mercury, which are both neurotoxins.
Mr. Schindler said the amount of metals was below levels considered dangerous to humans, but higher than acceptable for fish.
Last week, Mr. Schindler and commercial fishermen showed off diseased, discoloured, disfigured fish caught in Lake Athabasca, downstream of the oil sands. One fish had a tumour the size of a golf ball. Another was missing part of its spine.
The province has stood behind the findings of its scientists, who say Mr. Schindler's results aren't conclusive and that the higher concentration of metals is because of outcrops of bitumen in the area.
But on Friday, Mr. Renner said it's best to be sure.
"There is a lot of confusion right now because of the conflicting interpretations of data, and so I'm hoping [that]for people who live within the region a report of this type may help to bring some clarity."
Mr. Schindler's report is part of a growing number of concerns from environmental groups, multinational companies and U.S. legislators over the environmental impact of the oil sands.
The operations in and around Fort McMurray have become the wellspring of Alberta's economy, but are criticized for their strip mines, large lakes of toxic waste and refineries that emit great clouds of greenhouse gases.
Among the critics is Mr. Cameron, the Hollywood director famous for such blockbuster successes as Titanic and Avatar.
The 56-year-old, who was born in Kapuskasing, Ont., is planning on Tuesday to tour the oil sands and visit with oil executives and native groups in downstream communities. He has asked to meet with Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach on Wednesday.
Mr. Cameron has become a high-profile crusader on environmental awareness. Avatar is a science-fiction story about rapacious miners in giant claw machines who try to destroy the pristine wilderness that sustains the blue-skinned indigenous people of a distant world named Pandora.
While promoting the movie earlier this year, Mr. Cameron took a swipe at the oil sands, calling them a "black eye" and a self-defeating pursuit of a dead-end resource. That prompted Mr. Stelmach to invite him to see the oil sands firsthand.
Alberta NDP critic Rachel Notley said Mr. Renner's announcement smacks of a government looking to appease Mr. Cameron, whose media reach goes around the globe.
"The name of the game is, 'Look busy. James Cameron is coming,' " said Ms. Notley. "Renner can't tell us who is on his review panel because this announcement was cobbled together overnight."
Mr. Renner scoffed at the notion of appeasing Mr. Cameron. "No, absolutely not," he said.
The growing concerns over the oil sands have also drawn the attention of the federal government, which shares jurisdiction.
Environment Minister Jim Prentice told CBC News on Friday that he, too, has scientists reporting to him before the end of year on water monitoring.
"If [the systems]are not good enough, they're going to have to be," said Mr. Prentice. "This is clearly an area where the federal and provincial governments will have to work together.
"We'll get to the bottom of this."
Also on Friday, the federal New Democrats released a report saying Ottawa is not living up to its responsibility properly to monitor and oversee the oil sands and their effect on the environment.
NDP Environment critic Linda Duncan said the government has to take a more stringent approach to approving future oil sands projects and must do more to assess the cumulative impact on the environment.
The party released its 48-page analysis after an all-party standing parliamentary committee studied the effects of the oil sands for two years but shelved its report because it couldn't reach consensus.
The Canadian Press