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Fact Sheet - Joint Canada-Alberta Implementation Plan for Oil Sands Monitoring Six Month Update (July 2012)

Six months ago, the governments of Canada and Alberta launched a scientifically rigorous, comprehensive, integrated, and transparent environmental monitoring program for the oil sands region.

The Joint Canada-Alberta Oil Sands Monitoring Plan outlines the path forward to enhancing the monitoring of water, air, land and biodiversity in the oil sands by demonstrating how we 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.

Since its launch, the Government of Canada has been working closely with the Province of Alberta on implementing the monitoring activities with a goal of having the Joint Canada-Alberta Oil Sands Monitoring Plan fully implemented by 2015.

Significant progress has been made, the joint approach is working well, and initial results from the new enhanced monitoring are expected this year.


Water Monitoring Activities

Water monitoring aims to quantify and assess the sources, transport, loadings, fate, and types of oil sands contaminants found in the Athabasca River and their effects on key aquatic ecosystem components.

Snow and atmospheric deposition: Coverage and sampling now covers close to 200 snow sites including co-location of 3 wet precipitation stations at Wood Buffalo Environmental Association (WBEA) sites.

Mainstem water quality: Monthly water quantity/quality sampling is conducted at seven sites on the lower Athabasca River. Mainstem spring thaw monitoring is initiated and initial sampling to correspond with early mountain runoff is also initiated in the Athabasca mainstem. Passive hydrocarbon samplers are installed at 4 sites. An automated water quality sonde is installed at one site.

Tributary water quality: Automated water quality sondes are installed in the Steepbank (two sites), Firebag (two sites), Muskeg (3 sites), Clearwater (1 site) and Ells (1 site) rivers. New upstream reference sampling locations were added to the Steepbank and Ells rivers. Ongoing daily spring thaw sampling was undertaken from April to June. Fourteen monthly sampling locations are maintained on 6 major tributaries.

Sediment coring: Sampling for historical aerial deposition/contaminant loading (concentration) reconstruction was conducted last March at 7 sites. These are in addition to the 5 sites sampled in 2011 and seven sites in 2010, EC and ESRD scientists are working to assess historical and contemporary patterns of contaminant deposition on the landscape near oil sands developments.

Invertebrate and ecosystem health: Sample processing and analyses of autumn 2011 samples from 6 mainstem locations are ongoing. Sixteen sites in the Peace-Athabasca Delta were sampled for water quality, biological community and sediment chemistry.

Wild fish health: Temperature thermisters are installed in monitoring tributaries for use in developing fish-growth-productivity relationships (Steepbank, Ells, Firebag, MacKay, Muskeg), in advance of late-summer/fall fish collections.

Fish invertebrate toxicology: To confirm 2011 findings, snow was collected last March from 6 sites on Athabasca mainstem/tributary locations. Samples will be used for laboratory-based toxicity testing on both fish and invertebrates.

Air Quality Monitoring Activities

The air quality monitoring is looking at the fate of contaminants from the point of emission to the point of deposition into aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems.

Ambient Air Quality
The ambient air monitoring network has been expanded and three new ecosystem monitoring sites are now installed downwind of the oil sands region.

Results of the first assessment of air pollutants, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and sulphur dioxide (SO2), concentrations over the oil sands region using satellite observations were published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters in February 2012.
In collaboration with Natural Resources Canada, studies to differentiate between oil sands and non-oil sands sources of nitrogen in Alberta have been conducted. The sources include vehicles, coal-fired power plants, gas compressor stations and agriculture.

Ecosystem Exposure Monitoring: Air samplers are installed at bird nest boxes to monitor the range and levels of airborne contaminants to which bird species are exposed.
Deposition - Polycyclic aromatic compounds (PACs) and Metal: Sampling has been occurring since fall 2010 at 19 near and remote sites in the oil sands region. Samples are being analyzed and results are being compared to, and integrated with, the biodiversity monitoring of precipitation, snow surveys and snow cores.

Biodiversity Monitoring Activities

Biodiversity monitoring focuses on assessing terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity and the potential impacts of contaminants and habitat disturbance. Since program inception we have:

Terrestrial and Habitat Disturbance
Core terrestrial biodiversity monitoring: The Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute (ABMI) is currently collecting biodiversity information from 64 wetland and 64 terrestrial monitoring sites across the oil sands region using a suite of more than 30 data collection protocols. Data on more than 1000 species is being captured including for mammals, migratory birds, vascular plants, moss, lichens and soil invertebrates. Complementary data is also being collected at 12 additional terrestrial locations and 12 additional wetland locations.

Cause-effect monitoring: CWS is nearing completion of 2000-3000 terrestrial bird point counts across 38 habitat classes across the oil sands region; these data will be used to improve bird-habitat density models that form the foundation of monitoring to understand response to disturbance footprint by oil sands development. Analyses are underway to predict the impact of industrial development and climate change on birds within the oilsands area, in partnership with the Boreal Avian Modelling Project at the University of Alberta.

Human disturbance footprint monitoring and habitat monitoring: Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute is conducting 3 major activities to support footprint and habitat monitoring. First, a continuation of the ABMI's detailed vegetation and footprint sampling program (ABMI's 3 x 7 km samples) in the oil sands region to assess status and trends in footprint, vegetation and wetlands. This detailed work is being done for 80 sites. Second, update of human footprint 2007 wall to wall inventory to circa 2010. Finally, release of coarse-filter vegetation inventory for the oil sands. All data is publically available.

Data on wild bird health and contaminants: Eggs of colonial waterbirds have been collected from western Lake Athabasca and from Wood Buffalo National Park (reference site) and have been delivered to the laboratory for contaminants analyses.
Studies and monitoring data on amphibian health/toxicology/contaminants: Further field sites at wood frog breeding locations have been established for amphibian monitoring; water samples have been collected to characterize the breeding ponds, and tadpole and adults have been collected for contaminants, disease, and biomarker assessments.
Studies and monitoring data on bird health and toxicology: Tree swallow nest boxes are set up at two locations near active mine sites and at a reference site. Nestlings in the boxes are being monitored for growth.

Toxicology and contaminant studies on wild bird and hunter/trapper-harvested wildlife: Waterfowl birds were collected in spring by hunters at locations north of the Oil Sands; they will be sent to the laboratory for dissection and contaminants analyses. Otters collected in northwest Saskatchewan by Saskatchewan government personnel are being sent to National Wildlife Research Centre for contaminants analyses.

Studies and monitoring data on plant health and contaminants: Plant exposures to oil sands-related contaminants have been initiated in the greenhouses at National Wildlife Research Centre.

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