Renewed calls for a moratorium on new oil sands production are being made after more than 500 ducks were severely oiled when they landed on a toxic tailings pond in northern Alberta in April.
The migratory birds landed on a pond filled with toxic waste from the oil sands operation at Syncrude’s Aurora North Site mine, north of Fort McMurray. The Alberta government is investigating.
At the time news of the bird deaths became public, Alberta government representatives were in Washington promoting the tar sands as “environmentally sustainable”, a claim environmentalists challenge.
“It’s not just that tar sands oil releases three times as many greenhouse gases as conventional oil, or that massive amounts of water are consumed and polluted in its production, or that the boreal forest is being destroyed,” said Mara Kerry, conservation director at Nature Canada. “This incident clearly shows the grave danger that the tar sands pose to migratory birds and other wildlife.”
Syncrude’s apparent failure to implement measures to prevent the birds from landing, required by provincial law, may also be in contravention of the federal Migratory Bird Convention Act. Nature Canada has urged the federal government to conduct a thorough investigation, and impose stiff penalties if it’s found that the Act was contravened.
This incident shows that even with preventive efforts in place, tailings ponds continue to pose a danger to birds. As waterfowl and shorebirds return from migration journeys hundreds of kilometres long, the ponds appear to be welcome places to rest and feed.
“Millions of migratory birds are travelling through the boreal region this time of year, and it’s impossible to stop all birds from becoming ensnared in these toxic traps,” said Kerry. “It shows the inherent danger of establishing tailings ponds like these.”
Nearly a dozen tailings ponds line both sides of the Athabasca River and pose a serious threat to the entire Mackenzie River basin. Many are already leaking and creating their own tainted wetlands. The ponds, which contain a thick mix of water, oil and clay, give off a strong aroma of hydrocarbons and rarely freeze. Fish, birds and other wildlife face death from swimming in or drinking from the ponds.
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers reports that of 25 chemicals found in every tailings pond and studied by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 14 are human carcinogens.
“This is just a small taste of the huge environmental disaster that awaits when one of these tailings ponds breaks its dams,” said Kerry. “It could have a catastrophic impact on the entire Mackenzie River Basin.”
“Canada needs to put the brakes on what we know is the dirtiest form of oil on the planet,” said Kerry. “The environmental and human health costs are simply too high.”