Technical Support Document for the Regional Sustainable Development Strategy for the Athabasca Oil Sands Area

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  • Alberta's environmental and natural resource management systems are designed to make sure the environmental impact of development is minimised, and the air, land, surface water and drinkable groundwater all meet provincial guidelines. In addition, they are used to ensure disturbed areas are properly reclaimed, renewable resources regenerate successfully, wildlife populations are sustained and wilderness is conserved. Alberta's current system is very effective and highly regarded — the standards set in Alberta meet or exceed most national and North American standards. The unprecedented pace of development in the Athabasca Oil Sands area, however, presents new challenges for the environmental and resource management systems of governments and industry. These include overlapping needs for access to public land, competition for renewable public resources such as forests, wildlife and water, and increased potential for effects on environmental quality, species diversity and abundance, and human health. In September of 1998, in anticipation of further oil sands resource development in Northern Alberta, Alberta Environment (AENV) committed to leading the creation of the Regional Sustainable Development Strategy (RSDS) for the Athabasca Oil Sands area. The development was led by the Northeast Boreal Region of AENV with a strong partnership involving regional stakeholders and regulators. The partners include First Nations and Aboriginal Communities, industry, environmental interest groups and government agencies (provincial [Alberta and Saskatchewan], municipal and federal). The RSDS builds on Alberta's current environmental and resource management system by creating the framework for the following: • Providing support for continued economic development in the region that addresses environmental needs and resource sustainability. • Creating an enhanced management framework that will adapt to the changing needs of the area which will guide government’s environmental and resource managers. • Developing a strong foundation of environmental information and science to assist in making decisions on sustainable resource and environmental management in the region. • Creating a way to identify priority regional environmental issues, and to organize the science and monitoring work needed to understand these issues. An inventory of environmental and resource management systems, the identification and analysis of issues, and the drafting of the RSDS were completed on July 30, 1999. The 72 issues addressed by the RSDS were identified from project-specific environmental impact assessments in the region, the Athabasca Oil Sands Cumulative Effects Assessment Framework Report, and from issues raised during Alberta Energy and Utilities Board (EUB) hearings on oil sands mines and in situ bitumen production projects. The issues were grouped according to similarities in their information gaps, and a list of 14 themes was created. Blueprints for action were then developed to resolve the issues within these theme groups. The groups were separated into the following three categories: Category A (based on information gaps/urgency) — sustainable ecosystems; cumulative impacts on wildlife; soil and plant species diversity; effects of air emissions on human health, wildlife and vegetation; and bioaccumulation of heavy metals. Category B (based on information gaps and work underway) — access management; cumulative impacts on fish habitat and populations; effects of tailings pond emissions; effects of acid deposition on sensitive receptors; and impacts on surface water quality. Category C (based on information gaps, work underway, and lower level of urgency) — end pit lake water quality; impacts on surface water quantity; and impacts on groundwater quantity and quality. It is recognized and acknowledged that the issues of tomorrow may be different from those of today. RSDS provides a framework and a process to review and adapt environmental and resource management in a continuous learning format, and to improve and respond quickly to changing circumstances.

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