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The federal government has released a $20-million plan to improve water-quality monitoring in the Athabasca River downstream of the oil sands, part of an effort to improve the environmental record of the industry.

At a news conference Thursday, Environment Minister Peter Kent said the oil industry would be responsible for the $20-million cost of the new system, a figure that will grow as Ottawa adds air pollutants and biodiversity to its monitoring plan.

He was responding to a report from the Federal Oil Sands Advisory Panel, which concluded last fall that the current system fails to provide systematic monitoring of the environmental impact of the oil sands, which has been blamed for increased cancer rate of some First Nations communities.

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"This plan to enhance surface water monitoring in and around the Athabasca River is only a first step, not the end of our efforts," Mr. Kent said.

He said the government is committed to the creation of a "world class" environmental assessment system, but believes the industry will continue to thrive under that closer scrutiny. "We are confident that we can protect the environment while seeing the economic benefits of the oil sands."

He said there will be more monitoring at more locations testing for more substances. The system will be run by Environment Canada, raising concerns in the industry about costly overlap with the provincial government's regulatory plan.

Environmental groups welcomed the new plans, but said that the government now needs to move quickly to fill in missing details and implement it, and that Ottawa should then strengthen regulations to set tough standards against the release of toxins into the environment.

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