CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - A government-sponsored scientific committee studying water monitoring in Canada's oil sands has backed assertions that multibillion-dollar energy developments are polluting waterways and it urges more stringent oversight.
The report by the independent scientists, appointed by Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach, said an incendiary study by water ecologists last year appeared to be right in its contention that toxic substances downstream from the developments do not occur naturally.
An industry-funded body had long said heavy metals and polycyclic aromatic aromatic compounds, or PACs, found in the Athabasca River watershed north of Fort McMurray, in northern Alberta, occurred naturally as bitumen leached into the river.
"Taking into consideration all data and critiques, we generally agree ... that PACs and trace metals are being introduced into the environment by oil sands operations," the panel said in its evaluation of four reports.
The northern Alberta oil sands are the largest source of oil outside the Middle East and are the target of billions of dollars worth of development plans. However, the environmental impact, including greenhouse gas emissions, forest destruction and water pollution, are under heavy criticism by green groups.
Stelmach asked the six-member panel to examine the studies in September after University of Alberta scientists Erin Kelly and David Schindler released their report that concluded oil sands plants are sending toxins including mercury, arsenic and lead into the watershed.
Schindler also sharply criticized work by the government-supported and industry-funded Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program, which had held to the naturally occurring line.
The studies prodded both the provincial and federal government to appoint scientists to study the effectiveness of current monitoring programs and make improvements.
In December, the federal panel reported "there was no evidence of science leadership to ensure that monitoring and research activities are planned and performed in a coordinated way".
"We agree with Kelly et al that it is improbable that the snowpack-deposited contaminants could have resulted from wind erosion of bitumen outcrops or bitumen-containing soils in undisturbed landscapes -- especially under snow-cover," the Stelmach-appointed committee said in its report.
However, it said information provided by the University of Alberta scientists on concentrations of PACs and trace metals in water was less conclusive.
"We think Kelly et al's study, in spite of some uncertain statements on loadings and risks, has been important in pointing out deficiencies in current monitoring programs in the oil sands area," the panel said.
Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner said the report will be used by the province's own newly appointed panel as it works to design a better monitoring system.
(Reporting by Jeffrey Jones; editing by Peter Galloway)