Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment highlights flaws in new oil sands monitoring

The new Joint Canada-Alberta Implementation Plan for Oil Sands Monitoring (JOSM) is just as inadequate as the old Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP). Neither program has escaped compromising conflict of interest -- industry funding.

This press release from CAPE points to this flaw, and others, and declares support for aboriginal efforts to do a better job.

The Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) pointed out the weakness of proposed new plans for monitoring the health and environmental impact of the oil sands in a press release issued. CAPE also outlined what other commentators and scientists have said of past attempts to monitor these impacts, and declares support for the "Healing Walk" by Keepers of the Athabasca, a First Nations and Métis-led coalition that is highlighting the on-the-ground evidence for oil sands effects, and calling for governments to do a better job protection human health and the health of the ecosystem.

Press Release
Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment
New Monitoring System for the Oil Sands Flawed, Lacks Independence
July 2013-07-03

The Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) asks the governments of Alberta and of Canada to assure independence of the new Joint Canada-Alberta Implementation Plan for Oil Sands Monitoring (JOSM). CAPE also seeks clarity concerning plans for academic engagement and scientific peer-review in the new monitoring plan. 

 JOSM, as noted in the Edmonton Journal on May 9, 2013, will be funded by industry at $50 million/year for 3 years and is under the control of the Albertan Minister of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development.  The previous environmental monitoring system, the Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP), was also funded by industry and was found by multiple peer-reviews to be inadequate, with the Royal Society of Canada (RSC) commenting that it had "serious deficiencies in relation to international best practice." The RSC additionally stated, "There is a strong and pervasive perception of potential cumulative health risks among downstream community members believing that contaminants are being released to the environment at dangerous levels by oil sands projects."   

 The proposed funding and structure model of JOSM, with its industry sponsorship and government oversight, raises the possibility of conflicts of interest and will not be adequate to ensure scientific rigour or to allay public concern.

Limitations to studies on human health highlight the need for excellent monitoring of the environmental determinants of health.  Diseases such as cancer may take a long time to manifest in humans: this means that we may not perceive the human health consequences of a given level of oil sands development until decades after the insult has taken place. 

Also, the dry world of statistics is dramatically important: a 2009 Alberta Cancer Board report did find a higher than expected total number of cancers in Fort Chipewyan at a level of borderline statistical significance. 8 This finding is subject to large error ranges given the small population, making definitive conclusions elusive. 

Given that all relevant populations are small, future studies of human health will face similar statistical challenges.  Studies of the environmental determinants of human health--factors such as air quality, water quality and contamination of local foodstuffs--are more likely to conclusively show an effect, if there is one, within a time frame that will allow meaningful corrective action to be taken before human health is affected.  Arms-length independent scientific oversight of JOSM is still possible and is essential to the quality, and to the perceived quality, of the monitoring of these critical environmental determinants of health.

JOSM was announced in February 2012 with the goal of creating a world-class monitoring system.  The promise of a more scientifically rigorous approach was applauded by the Canadian Medical Association (CMA), which passed a motion in August, 2012 supporting "the creation of a federal-provincial/territorial partnership to monitor the environmental and adverse health effects of natural resource extraction projects (DM 5-33)."  The CMA also called for "timely and comprehensive public access to all government and industry environmental health-related data gathered during monitoring of natural resource extraction projects (DM 5-34)."  The creation of the still-sparse "Canada-Alberta Environmental Monitoring Information Portal" in April was a first step towards addressing the second concern.  Meanwhile, the implementation of JOSM does not appear to be keeping pace with development, and without assured independent scientific oversight, its early promise is fading.

 The "Keepers of the Athabasca," a gathering of First Nations, Metis, Inuit, environmental groups and other citizens of the Athabasca watershed will hold a "Healing Walk" on the week-end of July 5,6, focused on "healing the environment and the people who are suffering from tar sands expansion." Clearly, deeply-felt concerns remain about polluted air, undrinkable water and contaminated traditional foods. CAPE believes that the people of the Athabasca region and of the Mackenzie River system deserve a truly world-class monitoring system, and they deserve it now. 

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