Oilsands giants like Syncrude are putting wildlife at risk by leaving dormant runoff ponds unmonitored, says a biologist who specializes in deterring birds from tailings ponds.
Unlike tailings ponds, runoff ponds in the oilsands are not assessed for their ability to injure or maim water birds and other wildlife, said Colleen Cassady St. Clair, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Alberta and lead researcher behind the Research on Avian Protection Project.
"There has not been thorough independent inventory of all the ponds, which creates liability for everybody — not just the leaseholders but the entire industry and Alberta as a province trying to sell its clean petroleum products," Cassady St. Clair said during an interview Tuesday with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.
"It's a liability for all of us to have such striking evidence of an incomplete inventory of dangerous ponds."
Cassady St. Clair's concerns over regulation come after the Alberta Energy Regulator charged Syncrude Canada in the deaths of 31 great blue herons discovered at an abandoned pump house at the Mildred Lake mine north of Fort McMurray two years ago.
On Aug. 7, 2015 Syncrude revealed that 29 carcasses from the large shorebirds were discovered near a pump house at an abandoned sump pond at the Mildred Lake mine site north of Fort McMurray.
One additional bird was ordered euthanized by Alberta Fish and Wildlife.
'A blight for the industry'
Despite previous reports that bird deterrents at the facility were fully working, Syncrude spokesman Will Gibson acknowledged at the time of the incident that no such equipment was in operation.
The company has since been charged under the Environment Protection and Enhancement Act with failing to store a hazardous substance to ensure it does not come into contact or contaminate animals.
Syncrude faces a maximum fine of $500,000 in the case.
Very few of the abandoned pond sites in the oilsands likely pose a risk to waterfowl, said Cassady St. Clair, but oilsands operators cannot afford to be apathetic about environmental regulation, she added.
"I don't think the fines are very effective in and of themselves, but the occurrence of the charges and convictions are a bit of a blight for the industry," Cassady St. Clair said.
"In the court of the public opinion, I think there are substantial deterrents. No company likes to be portrayed in the media as environmentally irresponsible."
Earlier in August, Syncrude spokesperson Will Gibson told CBC News the oilsands company is "truly saddened and deeply regrets" the death of the birds that occurred in an inactive part of the mine."
Gibson said Syncrude has made changes to its waterfowl protection plan — not just at tailings facilities after similar incidents, but also on other bodies of water.
'I don't think the fines are very effective in and of themselves, but the occurrence of the charges and convictions are a bit of a blight for the industry.' - Colleen Cassady St. Clair, biologist
The changes include installing strobe lights, scarecrows, noise devices and a radar-based deterrence that activates propane-fired noise canons when birds approach.
There's also a central bird-monitoring and control centre with year-round staffing, especially during known bird migration times.
The incident in August 2015 wasn't the first time Syncrude faced penalties for death of wildlife on its property.
The company was fined $3 million when more than 1,600 ducks died after landing on a tailings pond in 2008.
In October 2010, more than 550 birds died or had to be killed when an early winter storm forced them to land on waste ponds belonging to Syncrude and Suncor.
In November 2015, 122 birds were killed after landing on three tailings ponds in the area, including one at Mildred Lake.
The Research on Avian Protection Project was launched in 2010 as part of a sentence imposed on Syncrude related to the deaths of the ducks on its tailings pond.
'Tarred with the same brush'
Despite the new protections that her research helped introduce, Cassady St. Clair fears more waterfowl will die if the contaminated ponds are not properly accounted for.
"A lot of people assume tailings ponds are the only dangerous ponds on those lease sites, but actually we know there are a lot of different kinds of dangerous ponds," Cassady St. Clair said.
"Oilsands operators are obliged to protect wildlife from all ponds containing process-affected water. They're all considered hazardous. All the ponds are tarred with the same brush."