Syncrude bird deaths, Nexen pipeline spill show oilsands' degradation of ecosystem: First Nation

The recent bird deaths at a Syncrude oilsands facility in northern Alberta along with last month's Nexen Energy pipeline spill — one of the biggest in the province's history — show the need for better oversight, a local First Nation says.

'Something is seriously wrong,' says Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation

The Alberta Energy Regulator says the death of 30 blue herons at Syncrude Canada's Mildred Lake oilsands mine north of Fort McMurray is under investigation. (Canadian Press/The Interior/Wiki Creative Commons)

The recent bird deaths at a Syncrude oilsands facility in northern Alberta along with last month's Nexen Energy pipeline spill — one of the biggest in the province's history — show the need for better oversight, a local First Nation says.

"In less than one month, we have seen two major events that clearly demonstrate that something is seriously wrong," said Allan Adam, chief of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN), in a news release. "These incidents, and the countless more seen in recent past, are contributing to the degradation of the local ecosystems and the treaty and aboriginal rights of nations in the region."

Alberta's energy regulator said 30 blue herons died earlier this week at the Mildred Lake Facility north of Fort McMurray, Alta. An investigation into what caused the birds to die is still underway.

Bob Curran, a spokesman for the agency, says a Syncrude worker found one of the heron Wednesday. The bird was alive but had to be euthanized. After the company searched the area, they found the rest of the birds dead in a run-off pond.

"We have seen irreparable damages to the environment and now death of a species that is listed with special concern," said Adam.

Adam is correct that the fannini subspecies of the great blue heron is listed as a species of "special concern" under Canada's Species at Risk Act, but they mostly reside on the B.C. coast. According to the Canadian Wildlife Federation's Hinterland Who's Who website, the overall great blue heron population is healthy, and scientists estimate there are tens of thousands of the bird in Canada. 

Still ACFN says it plans to work with Alberta's NDP government to ensure the province is meeting its environmental commitments. It says more oversight and management of Alberta's oilsands region is needed.

Syncrude reacts

The office of the Alberta Energy Regulator says its investigation into the latest bird deaths will look at the systems set up to keep wildlife away from the facility.

Syncrude Canada spokesperson Will Gibson said the bird deterrent system was fully operational at the site.

The regulator said that in light of several bird deaths at oilsands facilities in recent years, wildlife deterrent programs, including those at the Mildred Lake, are inspected regularly to make sure they're working.

More than 1,600 ducks died after they landed on a toxic Syncrude tailings pond in northern Alberta in 2008, and the company was fined $3 million.

Two years later, more than 550 birds had to be destroyed when an early winter storm forced them to land on waste ponds belonging to Syncrude and Suncor. The companies were not charged.

Last November, Alberta's regulator also cleared three oilsands operators of responsibility for the deaths of 196 waterfowl that landed on their toxic tailings ponds, saying poor weather forced the birds down.

Gibson says the company is co-operating with the Alberta Energy Regulator, as well as with provincial fish and wildlife officials and Environment Canada, in the investigation.

"Our goal is finding out what happened and ensuring that it's not repeated," he said.

With files from The Canadian Press


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