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Oil-sands monitoring regime aims to protect air and water quality

Liquid mine tailings are pumped into a drying area at a Suncor Energy Inc. oil sands operation in September of 2010.

Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

Federal Environment Minister Peter Kent has unveiled a new monitoring plan for the Alberta oil sands that is aimed at protecting air and water quality as well as biodiversity.

Announced at an Ottawa news conference Thursday, the plan was developed in consultation with more than 200 scientists from the provinces and territories and Canadian universities.

It will increase the number of monitoring locations and provide improved scientific measurement of impacts downwind and downstream of the oil sands.

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And it builds on an initial water-quality monitoring plan for the Lower Athabasca River that was announced in March.

The government hopes the initiative will help to improve the reputation of the multi-billion oil and gas project that has been labelled irresponsible and unsustainable by critics because of the associated environmental degradation.

The monitoring plan comes on the heels of a recommendation last year made by an independent oil sands advisory panel.

Preliminary estimates suggest that it will cost about $50-million a year but that is expected to decline over time as the plan evolves. The government hopes that the industry will pick up the tab.

Some of the initial monitoring is already being done in collaboration with the Alberta government. Environment Canada already has staff in the Athabasca Rover watershed observing the effects of the oil sands.

The advocacy group Environmental Defence, said that while they welcome Environment Canada's release of new monitoring design for tar sands pollution and biodiversity, the plan needs to be complemented with legally binding regulations.

"More data alone will not stop the growing pollution problem. Ottawa already has the legal authority to act," program manager Gillian McEachern said.

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"Mitigating the problems associated with tar sands development needs to go beyond collecting data on the impacts. Enforceable limits need to be put in place on habitat destruction, water and air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. There is mounting evidence that development in the region has already surpassed what the environment can handle, and the federal government needs to stop approving new tar sands projects."

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