Oil sands companies under pressure following wildlife deaths

More than a hundred birds died in Alberta oil sands waste ponds last week, raising questions about whether oil companies in Canada are doing enough to protect wildlife. 

Todd Korol/Reuters
Heavy equipment works on a tailings pond at the Suncor tar sands operations near Fort McMurray, Alberta on Sept. 17, 2014. Suncor was one of three oil sands companies that saw avian deaths in tailings ponds Nov. 5.

Three oil sands companies say scores of birds were killed after landing at their waste facilities in east-central Alberta, Canada, even though their avian deterrents were operational at the time.

All three companies – Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (CNRL), Syncrude and Suncor – said the birds began landing the morning of Nov. 4 and that their wildlife deterrents were working properly at the time. However, a dense fog was reported at the time, which may have disoriented the birds, contributing to their deaths.

 

All told, 122 waterfowl died on the companies’ tailing ponds, where waste from oil extraction is dumped, the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) reported on Nov. 5. CNRL reported finding 60 dead birds at its Horizon site, and Syncrude said it had to euthanize 30 birds that landed on a similar facility at its Mildred Lake site. (Related: When Needs Must: EC Greenlights Canadian Oil Sands Imports)

Suncor said that about 120 birds closed in on one of its waste ponds at about the same time, but its deterrents frightened most of them away. Six, though, managed to land.

Investigators sent in by the AER are trying to determine whether the companies’ deterrents were, in fact, working that day. The deterrents include ordinary scarecrows as well as more high-tech devices as radar units and acoustic devices such as propane cannons, which shoot nothing more dangerous than noise, to scare wildlife from toxic areas.

The oil companies expressed concern about the birds’ deaths. CNRL spokeswoman Julie Woo said in an e-mail to Canadian Broadcasting Corp. News, “We are saddened that approximately 60 waterfowl were not deterred and we are currently in the process of confirming the final affected number.”

Will Gibson of Syncrude offered a similar sentiment. He said his company noted increased bird activity in the region that morning. “As a result of these observations,” he told Global News, “our bird deterrent system went into heightened alert.”

“We don’t want our operations to harm wildlife,” Gibson said, “so we’re going to be reviewing our systems to see if there’s additional areas to improve on what we’ve already implemented.” (Related: Breakthrough In Oil Sands Waste Treatment)

Syncrude, a major oil sands operator in the region, was hit with a $3 million fine for the deaths of more than 1,600 ducks that had landed on its tailings pond in 2008.

Mike Hudema of Greenpeace Canada says wildlife deterrent systems aren’t enough, and that the oil sands operations need to get rid of tailings ponds, period. “The systems that they put in place to try to keep birds off are not working,” he said. “The only way to keep birds and animals safe in, really, what is a toxic brew of chemicals is to get these tailings ponds off the Alberta landscape.”

AER spokesman Ryan Bartlett said his agency is investigating the incident, but the results may not be known for months. Meanwhile, neither Alberta’s Environment or Energy ministry would comment, leaving the matter to AER. Provincial Premier Jim Prentice said he’d have nothing to say until the AER issues a report on its investigation.

By Andy Tully of Oilprice.com

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