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Garth Gautier, left, and his son Wade fish on the banks of the banks of the Clearwater River in Fort McMurray, Alta. August 29, 2010. The glacier fed river feeds into the The Athabasca River.

Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach's call for scientists to "sit down and compare data" involving toxins in the Athabasca River is welcome, as is his profession of "great respect" for University of Alberta biological scientist David Schindler. Welcome, but inadequate. It is unlikely that such informal meetings will succeed in resolving the serious issues raised by Dr. Schindler's research.

In a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Schindler found elevated levels of cadmium, mercury, lead and other toxic elements in the Athabasca River. Some levels exceeded those recommended by Alberta or Canada for the protection of aquatic life, the study found, concluding the "oil sands industry substantially increases loadings" of toxins into the river.

These peer-reviewed findings contradict government and industry claims that the toxins are naturally occurring and water quality has not been affected by oil sands development. An Alberta government fact sheet is adamant on this point: "Data indicates no increased concentration of contaminants in surface water in the oil sands area."

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News of Dr. Schindler's new study evoked predictable responses from some in Mr. Stelmach's government. For his part, Energy Minister Ron Liepert offered up, "If you look back at the work that [Dr. Schindler]has done in the past, I'm not surprised that this was the result."

Albertans and Canadians deserve more than innuendo directed at a distinguished scholar who has 10 honorary degrees to his name, is an Officer of the Order of Canada and a recipient of the Alberta Order of Excellence, that province's highest honour. The citation for the latter described Dr. Schindler as "an internationally celebrated scientist" whose "groundbreaking research has served as a clarion call alerting authorities and the public to the effects of pollutants." Rather than imply some sort of sinister agenda, Alberta needs to know the facts.

The Alberta government needs to respond credibly. If it can be shown there are scientific reasons to doubt the veracity of Dr. Schindler's study, then further independent investigation of the contaminants and their source is required. If there are not, then the provincial and federal governments have failed in their duty to protect the environment and in the process have harmed the interests of the oil sands industry.

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