500 Bird Deaths Tip of the Ice Berg
Posted by mhudema on May 2, 2008
THE CANADIAN PRESS
EDMONTON–The 500 ducks that died this week in a toxic wastewater pond represent only a fraction of the number of birds that die every year in Alberta’s oilsands region, experts say.
And they warn the number of bird deaths will jump dramatically as more heavy oil plants are built unless governments bring in tougher environmental rules, including how to deal with billions of litres of poisonous sludge the plants produce.
“The tailings ponds are old technology. They have to come up with a better tailings system,” said Ruth Kleinbub, a director of the Federation of Alberta Naturalists who lives in Fort McMurray.
“Don’t start building these plants until they have something better in place.”
The flock of ducks landed earlier this week on a Syncrude Canada Ltd. tailings pond near Fort McMurray and died gasping, covered in oil. Syncrude called it the first large-scale bird death in 30 years.
The ponds, which contain water left tainted after being used to remove oil from sand in the area, sit along the flyways that birds use to migrate to and from northern nesting grounds. Normally, they’re ringed with noise-making cannons to scare the birds away, but those cannons were not in place this week.
Members of the Alberta Fish and Game Association say songbirds and other waterfowl are regularly seen in the ponds.
President Maurice Nadeau said while the cannons can help scare away migratory waterfowl, birds that remain in the region get accustomed to the sound.
Nadeau, who works in the energy industry, said sometimes companies string wires with flags attached across tailings ponds as a type of scarecrow, but that doesn’t work for very long, either.
He said he’s even seen moose in the tailings ponds.
“The problem is far more widespread and way more than the 500 birds that have perished (this week). Nobody wants to see wildlife wastefully dying that way. We have to come up with a better way to manage these hazards and mitigate these hazards.”
Scientists with a U.S.-based research group called the Boreal Song Bird Initiative said there is a long documented history of bird deaths in such ponds.
Professor Jeff Wells of Cornell University said there are records of 15 species of waterfowl that have been killed on Syncrude ponds, and 22 species of other birds.
Wells said for every duck carcass found in the pond, other birds could have died and sunk to the bottom or landed in the water and then flown away, dying in the bush.
“The 500 ducks is just the tip of the iceberg,” Wells said. “There is no way to know how many skeletons lie at the bottom of those ponds.”
Well said more research is needed about the impact of the destruction of wildlife habitat in the oilsands regions on songbirds because scientists estimate millions of birds could perish in the next 20 years.
First Nations leaders in northern Alberta also called on the federal and provincial governments to take action. They contend that the tainted tailings pond is only the latest example of how the oilsands industry is affecting their traditional way of life.
One band handed over to the Canadian Wildlife Federation an oil-covered duck shot by a hunter more than 200 kilometres north of the Syncrude pond.
Alain Moore of Syncrude said he could not confirm the duck was one of the birds affected, but told the Fort McMurray Today: “Regardless of where the bird came in contact with hydrocarbon, it’s a sad event. Our focus continues of searching the area for ducks needing to be rescued and operating and maintaining our deterrent system.”
Native leaders say they want action.
“I expect a clean-up that focuses on affected wildlife in the Peace-Athabasca Delta as well as the region including Wood Buffalo National Park, where birds are known to nest each year,” said Chief Allen Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.
“We need peace of mind that our traditional ways can continue.”
On Thursday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the Syncrude incident is unacceptable and has tarred Alberta’s and Canada’s international image.
Harper pledged that his government will work to ensure that heavy oil industry fulfils its existing obligations, along with any new rules that Ottawa and Alberta think are necessary.
Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach said on Friday that his government is investigating what happened at the Syncrude tailings pond and is looking at what changes could be made to improve the system.
But he also said Syncrude’s system of scaring birds away has worked well for decades.
“We want to find out what went wrong, why it went wrong, who’s responsible,” Stelmach said. “The bird aversion strategy, the method that Syncrude was using, has worked well for about 30 years. What happened here? We want to find out.”