|Proposed oil sands monitoring by 2015. Click to enlarge.|
The Government of Canada and Government of Alberta unveiled “The Joint Canada-Alberta Implementation Plan for Oil Sands Monitoring” in a partnership to improve environmental monitoring in the oil sands region with a program that will sample more sites for more substances more frequently. The program is designed to provide an improved understanding of the long-term cumulative effects of oil sands development.
The Implementation Plan addresses the following components: air quality; acid sensitive lakes and accumulated aerial deposition; water quantity/quality; aquatic ecosystem health—fish status and health, benthic invertebrates and other aquatic biota; wildlife toxicology; terrestrial biodiversity and habitat disturbance; and data management.
Air quality. Sources of air contaminant emissions from oil sands developments include industrial smokestacks, tailings ponds, transportation, and dust from mining operations. In general, these emissions are projected to increase into the future with increasing industrial development. Current air monitoring efforts in the region are more targeted toward measuring compliance with provincial regulations; however, significant questions remain regarding the emissions from point and non-point sources, the chemical transformation of these emissions in the atmosphere, their long-range transport and their effects on the ecosystem and human health.
The plan calls for monitoring contaminants from the point of emission to the point of deposition into aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. This includes enhanced effort to determine emission from industrial stacks, mobile sources and area sources (e.g. tailings ponds).
When implemented, the new sites will span a large spatial range, from upwind sites to long-range transboundary sites; this broad spatial range will allow a greater understanding of the distinction between natural, point and non-point sources and the long-range effects of air emissions downwind, such as on acid sensitive lakes and terrestrial vegetation.
Acid sensitive lakes and accumulated aerial deposition. The monitoring of the snowpack and acid sensitive lakes is designed to assess the linkages between atmospheric deposition and impacts on water quality. Data will be analyzed to determine, where possible, baseline conditions to which changes in atmospheric deposition as well as chemical and biological changes can be detected and explained.
Water quantity/quality. The quality and quantity of the water in the Athabasca River and throughout the oil sands region has been a key concern due to the range of contaminants produced by industrial activities that could end up in lakes and rivers in the region.
The current sampling approaches are poorly designed for the purposes of providing an integrated understanding of the impacts of the oil sands industry on the aquatic environment, according to the governments. Water monitoring will be done through a comprehensive and integrated approach that quantifies and assesses the sources, transport, loadings, fate, and types of oil sands contaminants in the Athabasca River system and effects on key aquatic ecosystem components (both within the oil sands development area and in downstream receiving environments) that are measures of ecosystem health and integrity (fish, invertebrates).
A mass-balance approach was used to define the network of sites to be monitored for key water quality, hydrometric and aerial deposition variables.
Aquatic ecosystem health. There is a risk that contaminants from industrial activities entering rivers and lakes could have an adverse effect on the overall healthy functioning of the aquatic ecosystems. Efforts will focus on monitoring a set of fish, invertebrates and other species that are indicators of overall aquatic ecosystem health. This will be done through establishing: the current status of fish population health and benthic communities structure and function in the Lower Athabasca region; the baseline against which future change can be assessed; the differences among reference and potentially impacted sites; the health status of fish populations in high use areas; whether the incidence of fish abnormalities is elevated or changing; and whether contaminant concentrations in fish are increasing or decreasing downstream of oil sands development.
Wildlife toxicology. This program will assess the health of sensitive wildlife species that may be exposed to oil sands-generated contaminants via contaminated food or water.
The initial focus will be on the identification of a variety of wildlife indicators (including birds, mammals, amphibians and plants) to select species most suitable for monitoring contaminant exposure and impacts. Data collected will include measurements of oil sands-related contaminants of concern in wildlife tissues at various locations (e.g. PAHs, mercury, arsenic, etc.).
Terrestrial biodiversity and habitat disturbance. A key consideration related to the development of the oil sands is that of habitat disturbance. Geographic coverage of monitoring will be expanded and the monitoring sensitivity will be increased, particularly for species at risk.
Data management. In addition to increased monitoring efforts, both governments are working cooperatively to develop and implement an integrated data management system. A new Oil Sands Data Management Network (OS_DMN) will allow open and transparent public access on-line to comprehensive oil sands environmental monitoring data and supporting information. Network partners will be responsible for management of data and will adhere to a framework outlining a core set of data management policies. This will ensure that data is managed consistently across all partners.
The three-year implementation plan begins this spring with increased sampling frequency, parameters, and locations. It will also integrate relevant parts of existing monitoring efforts. The implementation plan reflects the Integrated Oil Sands Environment Monitoring Plan released by Environment Canada in July 2011 and will be consistent with the Government of Alberta’s plans for a province-wide environmental monitoring system, according to the Canada and Alberta environment ministries.
By the time the three-year plan is fully-implemented in 2015:
- the number of sampling sites will be larger and installed over a larger area;
- the number and types of parameters being sampled will increase;
- the frequency that sampling occurs each year will be significantly increased;
- the methodologies for monitoring for both air and water will be improved; and
- an integrated, open data management program will be created.
Implementation of the monitoring program will be both phased and adaptive, and will be jointly managed by the Government of Canada and the Government of Alberta. Annual progress reports on implementation will be prepared for the first three years, with an external scientific peer review of the program and the end of the third year. Following that, a full external, scientific review of the new program will be conducted every five years.
The end result of this Implementation Plan will be a world-leading program, fully integrated into national and provincial monitoring systems, providing reliable data on environmental conditions in the oil sands area. An integrated approach to air, water, land and biodiversity monitoring will yield compelling information on the state of the environment and environmental performance.—Joint Canada-Alberta Implementation Plan for the Oil Sands
Currently, both governments and industry commit resources to environmental monitoring. It is expected that industry will provide increased funding required to implement this new program.
The two governments will move forward immediately with discussions with industry, as well as other stakeholders, to establish the details related to implementation, including the arrangements for sustainable funding of the program. This engagement with industry, scientists and other stakeholders will be ongoing.
At the same time, both governments said they will take immediate steps required to start implementing the activities outlined for the first year of the program, and make the fullest possible use of the upcoming field season for monitoring. Monitoring in the oil sands will be managed in an adaptive manner, with plans and activities evolving to reflect experience gained from initial work. Details in years two and three will be finalized, refined and adjusted based on this adaptive approach, while continuing to reflect the approach of year one.