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Internal Documents Reveal Internal Disorder More Than A Year After Implementation of Joint Oil Sands Monitoring Program

More than a year after the program's supposed implementation, negotiations over the Alberta-Canada Joint Oil Sands Monitoring (JOSM) program were still ongoing between the federal government and the Government of Alberta, email correspondence shows.

In documents obtained by the Globe and Mail through the Access to Information Act, it’s clear that the conditions of the program changed throughout the last year. Though details are unclear due to redactions in the released emails, it’s evident that the final deal wasn’t signed until June of this year after significant back and forth and meetings between the Alberta government—who publicly resisted the creation of joint provincial-federal program—and Environment Canada officials.

Bob Hamilton, Environment Canada’s deputy minister, wrote on March 28 of this year, more than a full year after the program was announced, that they “have a green light to move forward with OS [oilsands] monitoring.”

The program was designed to increase monitoring of air, water and habitat quality from annual to monthly, with results available to the public to allow for independent scientific investigation. Full reports were to be issued annually.

After independently appointed panels at both the provincial and federal levels deemed Alberta’s monitoring systems inadequate, the Government of Alberta still balked at the prospect of the federal government implementing a new monitoring system.

The newly released emails indicate continued pushback from Alberta and an unwillingness to face the full extent of the gaps in existing environmental monitoring policy.

One email shows that Alberta’s Deputy Minister of Environment Dana Woodworth believed the province’s existing system left it “well-positioned” to implement a new monitoring regime, in spite of widespread criticism of that system.

The final agreement also states than while the program is intended to undergo a full review in 2015, three years from the time it was announced, either party can cancel the program with six months’ notice.

Given the program's internal disorder, it is unsurprising the first results commissioned by the monitoring program have only just been publicly released.

A study conducted by Environment Canada shows rising levels of mercury in bird eggs tested downstream from the Alberta tar sands. Some samples taken from the eggs of predatory birds showed traces of mercury that exceed the threshold of what’s considered dangerous. The findings indicate mercury levels could be rising in the fish the birds consume. The report was published online last month by the Environmental Science and Technology Journal.

In spite of what the study’s lead author called a trend of rising levels of mercury, spokeswoman for the Alberta government Jessica Potter told First Nations residents of Fort Chipewyan and Fort McKay that the bird eggs were still safe to eat.

“It’s one study. It doesn’t necessarily indicate a trend. It’s just important that we continue to look into it,” she told the Globe and Mail.

And while the Alberta Government shared the results with those communities and the study was published academically, the results weren't made publicly available on the JOSM Portal website. An agreement signed in June states that all data produced through the program will be publicly accessible via the portal. Although the website lists ongoing testing, many of the results tables state that results will be released in coming months.

Screen shot taken from the JOSM water monitoring page.

Environment Canada researchers said they couldn’t pinpoint the tar sands or any single factor as the cause of mercury increase, though one test revealed that mercury levels had risen two thirds since 1977 and the early days of tar sands' development. Dr. Craig Hebert said coal plants in Asia are a source of elemental gaseous mercury in North America and could possibly be a contributor to the increase.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), Canada's largest oil and gas lobby body and the only non-government body involved in the development of the joint monitoring program, has declined to comment on the results of the latest study.

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We hear it time and time again:
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Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

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