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CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - Alberta is forming an independent panel of scientists to study data on water pollution near the Canadian province's oil sands after a report by a noted ecologist concluded the industry's operations were contaminating a northern river system.
The move, announced by Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner on Friday, is aimed at ending an emotional debate over the impact of oil sands activity on the Athabasca River, which flows north through the massive industrial development.
Renner said his department and the University of Alberta's well-known biologist, David Schindler -- co-author of the study that said oil sands operations are sending toxins including mercury, arsenic and lead into the watershed -- will choose up to six panel members.
Until Schindler's study, the Alberta government and oil industry had stuck to the contention that any contaminants in the Athabasca River occurred naturally.
"We need to get to the bottom of this issue so we can look ahead toward the future of oil sands development, and that is exactly what we're going to do," Renner said.
"We're creating a third-party committee of scientists to review environmental data coming out of the oil sands region."
Environmentalists have long said that rapid development of the oil sands, the largest crude oil source outside the Middle East, is harming water and wildlife relied upon by the region's native people.
The panel, which may include members from the federal environment department, will pore over monitoring techniques and data compiled by the government-supported and industry-funded Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program, Schindler's group and others, Renner said.
The review is due to be completed by February 1.
RAMP studies, which Schindler has criticized sharply, have consistently concluded that the Athabasca's water quality is similar to before oil sands development.
The government is approaching the initiative with no expectations of what the results will be, Renner said.
"If the review indicates that more needs to be done to protect the watershed from industrial activity, we are committed to doing so," he said.
He would not elaborate on what measure could be taken.
Meanwhile, the New Democratic Party, the third-largest opposition party in the House of Commons, released its report into the impact of the oil sands on water resources, saying more federal regulation and monitoring are needed.
The report follows a similar one by the opposition Liberals stemming from two years of hearings before the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development, which failed to produce a consensus document.
Editing by Rob Wilson