Hundreds of deformed fish found in rivers running through the Alberta oil sands have been collected and documented by an industry-led monitoring body, The Globe and Mail has learned, but the findings were not shared with the public or key decision makers in government.
That body, the Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP), has been criticized in scientific quarters as secretive and is under the scrutiny of three reviews. Former environment minister Jim Prentice ordered one of those reviews after being shown photos this fall of a few malformed fish, and it was delivered Thursday to Environment Canada.
It is not known whether the fish deformities are a natural occurrence or a result of toxic pollution, and the absence of full information is hindering a debate that too often sinks into partisan rhetoric. Although Environment Minister John Baird has not responded to questions about the review, it may provide fresh impetus for Ottawa to wade into how Alberta safeguards its waterways.
The data obtained from RAMP concerns deformed fish pulled from the Athabasca - a cross-border river that is formally under Ottawa's jurisdiction and flows through the oil sands development area - and the nearby Clearwater. The data reveals that 915 fish with deformities, growths or other abnormalities have been found since 1987. That number is greater than those found in annual reports submitted by RAMP to the province.
Ottawa used to have a representative on the RAMP board, but no longer does. In a statement, Environment Canada said "our science has shown that deformities, lesions and tumours are present in the Athabasca River system at a stable level."
Critics of oil sands development have questioned water quality in the Athabasca, although no scientific report has proven a link between pollution and fish deformity. Academics say it's possible the proportion of fish deformities recorded by the agency that monitors water quality in the area is a natural occurrence. The deformities make up 2.2 per cent of the Athabasca sample, and 1.1 per cent in the Clearwater.
But Ottawa didn't get the full information. Until two years ago, RAMP's annual reports included only average rates of abnormality and a general statement that they were primarily associated with minor skin or body aberrations - no mention of deformities or growths.
In 2007, the annual report specifically noted "no evidence of more serious anomalies such as tumours," though data that year shows 29 fish were found with "growths" in the Athabasca. Only in the past two annual reports have deformities and growths been noted, but in lower rates than the data shows. RAMP says this is because it only includes certain species in its report, but the total number of fish captured is consistent, suggesting different deformity rates were drawn from the same sample group.
"That is the problem. To get the actual data, you need the raw data," not just annual reports, said Kevin Timoney, an Alberta ecologist and oil sands researcher. "They release just enough so they can say that they did, but they don't give you enough to see what's really going on."
Just over half RAMP's steering committee is made up of industry representatives, joined by municipal, provincial and first nations leaders. The body acts on industry's expertise and the recommendations of industry-paid contractors.
Much of the raw data collected by RAMP is kept private, deemed proprietary because of the industry funding. But even among its members, it has faced pressure to open up. Syncrude, which did much of the testing before RAMP's inception, has called for data to be released, spokeswoman Cheryl Robb said.
In the face of the three reviews, RAMP has begun opening its files and provided deformity data to The Globe. Of both rivers' 915 abnormalities, 461 are "growths," 177 are "deformities," and 277 are parasites. The bulk were found since 1997, when RAMP was created, but others were found by industry over the previous decade.
The "growths" are much more common in the Athabasca, while parasites make up the majority of Clearwater abnormalities.
"I've never heard that before," admitted Conservative Member of Parliament Brian Jean, an avid fisherman and community leader who represents the Fort McMurray area.
He, like Alberta Environment, questions whether the rate is normal. "I'll tell you what I have seen. I've seen a two-headed lamb in Niagara Falls at the Guinness Book of World Records showcase there. I think anomalies like that are fairly consistent in the world in all species."
The closest thing critics point to as a baseline is a 1982 Alberta Environment study of the Athabasca which tagged 17,000 fish and noted no such problems. Author Peter McCart said his researchers "were highly experienced. They would have known if there was a highly unusual incidence of deformed fish."
Either that report missed hundreds of examples, or the rate has risen as the oil sands have boomed. But Alberta has no data on what rate it would expect, and there's no Canadian benchmark. The rate itself isn't as concerning to many as the fact that it was largely kept from the public.
"The monitoring is just not credible. And we're a decade too late in addressing this issue," said Simon Dyer, policy director at Calgary's Pembina Institute environmental think-tank.
In a statement, RAMP said it has "always welcomed external input that is focused on better overall understanding of the cumulative aquatic effects of resource development in the Athabasca region." The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, whose members make up much of the RAMP steering committee, added it has "been clear in our encouragement of greater transparency of RAMP data."
Local fishermen from Fort Chipewyan, which lies downstream of development, pushed the issue onto the national agenda. Robert Grandjambe Jr. and his family caught the fish that shocked Mr. Prentice.
"I'm not a scientist, but I've been on the land all my life," said Mr. Grandjambe, now 26. "I've noticed the changes."
Those fish still sit in a freezer at the University of Alberta, and have been given names by researchers. There's Big Red, a whitefish whose skin is uncharacteristically crimson; Lumpy, who had a golf-ball-sized growth on its back; and Stumpy, whose tail was unusually short. Without them, Ottawa may not have reviewed RAMP. What it does now depends on the unreleased report.
"An essential component of any credible monitoring program is that all the data should be available to the public," said Pembina's Mr. Dyer. "It makes it very difficult to have proper management if information like this isn't making it to decision makers."