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CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - Opposition members of a Canadian parliamentary committee released a sharply critical report on oil sands development on Wednesday, saying governments and industry were in denial about the impact on fresh water.
The report by Liberal Party members of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development said there was ample evidence that oil sands projects in northern Alberta were polluting a regional watershed and that Ottawa was not doing its duty to manage the impact.
The Liberals released their own report after the all-party committee could not agree on conclusions after 18 months of testimony by industry members, politicians, environmentalists and scientists on the impact of oil sands development on fresh water.
The document, which largely addresses issues involving the Athabasca River system, fueled the latest controversy in a protracted battle over developing Canada's oil sands, the largest crude oil source outside the Middle East.
"Governments have reacted defensively to warnings from environmental groups and scientists alike about how the oil sands industry might be impacting on water supplies," the report said. "Instead they have sought refuge in the science of public relations."
Among the recommendations was a call for more study of the native people of Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, on Lake Athabasca, who have been shown to have higher rates of rare cancers than the general population. The link to oil sands development has not been proven.
The Liberals also called for federal environmental assessments of oil sands development to include analysis of the cumulative groundwater impact, and pushed for the federal Conservative government to take a stronger role in monitoring and protecting fresh water near oil sands projects.
"This is not an attack on the industry and we're not dealing with the Alberta government because the Alberta government is answerable to the people of Alberta," said Quebec Member of Parliament Francis Scarpaleggia, head of the Liberals' water caucus.
"Essentially we're very critical of the Conservative government in Ottawa for its lack of leadership in the area of federal constitutional responsibility, which is monitoring and maintaining the health of fish-bearing waters."
The oil industry and Alberta government dismissed the report as partisan, saying there is ample monitoring and study of the Athabasca watershed under provincial jurisdiction.
"We're reporting much of this already under regulation. We're doing a lot of work to make sure that the environmental sustainability of the oil sands grows from where it is," Greg Stringham, vice-president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said. He fears duplication of efforts.
Alberta's studies so far have shown any contamination of the waterway to be naturally occurring, a theme that arose during the committee hearings, a spokeswoman for Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner said.
Scarpaleggia said parliamentary rules prevent committee members from disclosing why there was no main report from the proceedings. However, each party can issue its own, he said.
The Pembina Institute, an environmental think tank, said the Liberal Party report was in line with its own criticism of oil sands development and government oversight.
"It certainly provides more evidence that Canada and Alberta, which are sort of fighting this public relations battle abroad, should actually focus on addressing some of the legitimate concerns," Simon Dyer, Pembina's director of oil sands, said.
Reporting by Jeffrey Jones; editing by Rob Wilson