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An oilfield worker walks down a flight of stairs at the Statoil oil sands facility near Conklin, Alberta, in this file picture taken November 3, 2011

Todd Korol/Reuters

Peter Kent's helicopter passes over the vast oil sands development that spreads across this corner of northern Alberta, before settling on the banks of the Ells River.

Not far from here, French energy giant Total SA has begun the work of clearing the way for its Joslyn oil sands mine. A little farther away, the boreal forest gives way to a series of mines – owned by Suncor Energy Inc., Royal Dutch Shell PLC, Syncrude Canada Ltd. and Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.

But Canada's Environment Minister has come here, to a picture-perfect river setting on a sunny day, in hopes of proving a point: Canada, after years of criticism, has begun to follow scientific advice and is launching an improved air and water monitoring program around Fort McMurray.

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He hasn't come alone. Three helicopters settle onto the shore, their tails dangling over the river. Alberta's Minister of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, Diana McQueen, is here too, emerging from the helicopter beside Mr. Kent as a symbol of the joint work that underlies new monitoring efforts.

That work remains in early stages. Some of the important efforts, such as a broad air-quality-monitoring campaign, will take a long time to fully install across Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and the Northwest Territories – only half of a planned 20 monitoring stations, each of which can cost $2-million, will be installed in five years. (And, in a measure of how much needs to change, only four of those will use sites now maintained by a Fort McMurray-based monitoring agency.) Scientists face difficulties in installing monitoring sites equipment in a huge region largely in the hands of big industry. The joint federal-provincial effort must work through issues related to "standardization," or collecting data that can be used across organizations.

The oil industry, which has pledged up to $50-million a year for monitoring, has yet to pay, and Mr. Kent acknowledges that Environment Canada is, for now, "acting as a temporary bank" for oil sands companies – although a financing agreement is expected soon. And one of the scientists whose work was instrumental in making the case for better monitoring says the Harper government, which has pared back numerous regulations to speed the way for industrial development, can't be trusted.

University of Alberta Professor David Schindler points to the lack of an independent monitoring oversight committee. Alberta and Ottawa have both said they support such a committee, but one has yet to be put in place.

"I have little faith that this will be done, based on recent actions around [omnibus budget] Bill C-38 and other related matters," Dr. Schindler said. "My guess is that paranoid governments will want to maintain control, for fear that something would be discovered that would derail their precious, ideologically driven worship for the great god 'Economy.'"

He cautioned that while government will arrange "smoke and mirrors to give the illusion of transparency and adequacy," the real program remains inadequate.

Yet it's clear some change is happening. At the Ells River, Fred Wrona, a senior science strategist with Environment Canada, wades into the flow to pull out an automated device that measures river flow, oxygenation and other indicators. This spring, he said, crews flew here and to 20 other sites every day to take water samples during the spring melt.

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It was an effort to monitor toxins that gather on snow and then flush into rivers, and is directly related to Dr. Schindler's work.

Mr. Kent is clearly pleased. The work that has already happened is "inspirational," said the Environment Minister, who pledged that data will be made publicly available by this fall.

"There's going to be very little room for manipulation or misinterpretation of any of the data that we recover," he said. It will "provide to the industry the social licence in a world that is sometimes unrealistically and unreasonably hostile to our resources."

Those gathering the data are using an array of low- and high-tech equipment. On one end of the scale, a "salad bowl" that looks like a mini UFO uses a foam-like material to detect oil-sands-related pollutants. On the other, a laser-powered system peers high into the atmosphere to track the movement of particulates, some of which can be related to oil sands processes. A side-scanning sonar mounted to the front of a small aluminum boat provides high-resolution river data.

Federal and provincial scientific teams working on some aspects of monitoring have doubled in size.

But the work isn't easy. In the air, oil-sands-related pollution can look a lot like forest fire smoke – both produce chemicals related to combustion. In the water, too, rivers flow past oil sands operations and naturally occurring bitumen. Scientists say they are still working to discern which is which.

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"It's having the right frequency and design and chemistry to tease that all apart," said Dr. Wrona. The government is doing chemical-fingerprinting work. But it remains unfinished business.

"It's what we're working on," Dr. Wrona said.

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