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Ottawa forms panel to probe oil sands pollution

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Canada's environment minister has formed a scientific panel to probe whether oil sands projects are polluting Alberta's Athabasca River, the second such move by a government in as many weeks in reaction to a damning report by a noted water ecologist.

Environment Minister Jim Prentice said Thursday the panel will advise him on environmental research and monitoring being done in the oil sands region and make recommendations on ensuring the industry operates responsibly.

The move follows the Alberta government's announcement last week that it will form an independent panel of scientists to study the water quality of the Athabasca, which flows through the region that is the site of massive oil sands plants.

The initiatives respond to a report co-authored by University of Alberta biologist David Schindler, which concluded that 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 has consistently concluded that pollution in the Athabasca River system occurs naturally.

Rob Renner, Alberta's environment minister, gave Schindler the opportunity to choose some of the members of the Alberta panel.

Prentice has said companies must improve their environmental performance while developing the oil sands, which is the largest crude source outside the Middle East but one that has come under increasing attack from environmental groups.

Environment Canada said its six-person panel would be chaired by Elizabeth Dowdeswell, former United Nations Environment Program director.

It will examine current scientific research and point out its strengths and weaknesses, reporting back to Prentice within 60 days.

"This independent review by some of Canada's most respected scientists is a critical step in ensuring that environmental issues are balanced with economic considerations," Prentice said in a statement.

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