Two separate incidents involving dead birds and Alberta oilsands developments within a week of each other had members of Greenpeace Canada on the steps of the Alberta legislature Monday calling for a public inquiry. The demand came on the heels of an incident at a ConocoPhillips oilsands site, which saw at least one loon die and two others taken to a veterinarian after landing on a recycled water pond. Just five days earlier, 500 ducks died on a Syncrude tailings pond.
According to ConocoPhillips spokesperson Julie Baron, a recycled water pond differs from a tailings pond in that it contains salt water with concentrations of lime and minerals but does not contain any hydrocarbons.
“While this incident is smaller in size and at a different company’s site, the fact remains this is the second wildlife death in less than a week that has been called in by a tipster rather than government officials,” says Greenpeace campaigner Mike Hudema. “The strategy of having companies report on themselves is clearly not working.”
On April 28, government officials were notified by an anonymous source that a flock of ducks had landed on a Syncrude tailings pond. Rescue efforts to save the ducks proved to be an exercise in futility. Many had already perished, while others dived into the toxic water to avoid rescuers. Only two of the five birds caught have survived.
While law requires the use of cannons to deter birds from the toxic ponds, none were reportedly in place at the time. Syncrude said poor weather conditions had prevented it from setting up the devices. Two days after the initial incident, a hunter found an oil-covered duck some 250 kilometres away in Wood Buffalo National Park, leading some to speculate the problem may be more widespread than first thought. Officials at Syncrude later admitted more birds had taken off during initial rescue efforts.
Premier Ed Stelmach was quick to comment on the situation, telling media, “This gives us an opportunity to tell not only our American trading partners, but all the world that we mean business when it comes to the rules and regulations that we have in place with respect to the environment and water.”
Syncrude officials say an incident of this scale hasn’t occurred in the 30 years of their oilsands operations, however, critics argue the inaccessibility of the tailings ponds make it difficult, if not impossible, for independent verification. “If that happened in this case, with such a large sample of birds, how many other cases have there been because these sites are so inaccessible to the public, government regulation is very lax and monitoring is usually left up to industry,” says Hudema.
Elders from the Chipewyan Prairie First Nation says the government has long been negligent in its duty to protect the environment and wildlife, often choosing profit over the environment when it comes to oilsands development. “The government wishes us to believe that they are monitoring environmental impacts towards ensuring the protection of our environment,” says chief Vern Janvier. “But we have repeatedly witnessed their neglect of their duties.”
According to Alberta Environment spokesperson Kim Capstick, the government conducts inspections and audits regularly and has a very comprehensive monitoring program to ensure the rules are being followed “This is a unique incident that’s being fully investigated, and there are a variety of aspects to our monitoring program,” says Capstick. “Companies are required to report to us, and we take that responsibility very seriously, and we expect them to do the same.” She notes annual reports submitted by Syncrude state bird fatalities have ranged from two to 25 per year in the past five years.
Greenpeace argues the two incidents have shown there are “massive holes” in the government’s monitoring program. “The tar sands catastrophe is growing by the day, and the death toll continues to rise,” says Hudema. “It’s past time we put the brakes on the tar sands.”
The timing of the incidents couldn’t have been worse for the government, with the incident at Syncrude occurring at the same time as Deputy Premier Ron Stevens was in Washington D.C. as part of a newly launched, three-year, $25-million taxpayer-funded public relations campaign aimed at promoting the oilsands as an environmentally sound investment. With a $100 billion of oilsands investment on the line, Stelmach defended the campaign in the legislature saying it is needed to stop the “misinformation” being perpetuated by well-funded environmental groups that have long criticized the environmental toll caused by bitumen extraction. The premier later told media, “The $25 million is small compared to the combined money of the various lobby groups.”
Critics scoffed at the premier’s suggestion that environmental groups like Greenpeace and the Sierra Club are as well-funded as the government or the oil industry. “I’m not aware of any environmental group that has $25 million to spend on a promotions campaign,” Liberal leader Kevin Taft told Fast Forward. According to Hudema, the amount of money Greenpeace Canada allocated towards oilsands activities was less than $300,000 in 2006, while the Sierra Club Prairie chapter reportedly spent under $40,000 last year on its oilsands campaigns.
Taft says while it may be legitimate to promote the province in general, the $25 million should be directed at fixing the problems associated with oilsands rather than image management. “You can’t just spend $25 million on public relations and think you can make a difference,” he says. “An incident like 500 ducks dying in a tailings pond reverses everything that $25 million can buy and then some.”
Stelmach tried to deflect attention away from the Syncrude incident and downplayed its severity by stating wind turbines kill 30,000 birds annually. An analysis of data by the U.S. National Wind Co-ordinating Committee (NWCC) in 2001 found that bird fatalities in the U.S. (excluding California) are estimated to be 6,400 per year. According to Jason Edworthy, director of stakeholder relations for TransAlta, there were only 150 bird deaths linked to the approximate 700 windmills in Alberta last year.
“For Ed Stelmach to say this (incident) isn’t so bad and that birds fly into windmills every day, Canadians expect better than that,” says Taft. “I would have expected the response from the premier to say this is extremely serious, we’re going to review everything around it including the self-monitoring and self-policing.”
By the weekend, however, the premier’s tone had changed. Despite Syncrude’s full-page ads apologizing for the incident placed in a number of Canadian newspapers on Saturday, May 3, Stelmach remained resolute in conducting a full investigation into the incident. “People may go through a stop sign and hurt someone and they apologize, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t the full investigation,” he told media.