Preventing oilsands bird deaths not a 'realistic goal,' says U of A biologist

Cannons, radar scanners and scarecrows will never be enough to completely prevent bird deaths in the oilsands, says a conservation expert charged with protecting waterfowl in open-pit mines.

'This problem cannot be prevented,' says Alberta conservationist

The Alberta Energy Regulator is investigating after a flock of horned larks were found dead at a Suncor mine north of Fort McMurray on Sunday. (Regexman/ Flickr)

Cannons, radar scanners and scarecrows will never completely prevent bird deaths in Alberta's oilsands region, says a conservation expert charged with protecting waterfowl from open-pit mines.

"As a social and political problem, I think it's pretty substantial," 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.

"This industry has presented itself, and been presented by our government and our citizens, as one that can prevent this problem," St. Clair said in an interview Thursday with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"This problem cannot be prevented with the current approach to it. And maybe that's not even a realistic goal."

The Alberta Energy Regulator is investigating after 123 birds were found dead at a tailings pond on the Suncor Fort Hills mine north of Fort McMurray.

The few horned larks found alive in the flock had to be euthanized on Sunday.

The oilsands giant said it was mystified by the discovery of dead and dying birds at the nearly completed mine, which has yet to produce its first official barrel of oil.

Fort Hills is jointly owned by Suncor, Total E&P Canada and Teck Resources. Suncor has launched an investigation to figure out why the birds were in the area, despite the presence of working deterrent systems, including cannons, radar and scarecrows.

Cassady St. Clair said she suspects the birds, exhausted by an impending storm, were attracted to lights in the area and touched down on the tailings pond, thinking it was solid ground.
The death of 30 blue herons at the Syncrude Canada Mildred Lake oilsands mine site north of Fort McMurray resulted in charges. (Canadian Press/The Interior/Wiki Creative Commons)
 The incident recalls previous bird deaths at oilsands tailings ponds.

Syncrude Canada was fined $3 million after more than 1,600 ducks were killed in a pond in 2008. No charges were laid in 2010, when 550 birds had to be destroyed due to an early winter storm that forced them to land on ponds at Syncrude and Suncor facilities.

In August, Syncrude Canada was charged with failing to properly store a hazardous substance in connection with the 2015 deaths of 31 great blue herons at its oilsands mine, an incident not related to its tailings ponds.

'A little bit over-reactionary'

Cassady St. Clair said there will always be bird deaths connected to the oil industry.

The incidents are embarrassment for the companies, but when it comes to conservation the oilsands is not the biggest villain, she said.

"If you were to just compare all the things that humans to do birds, the oilsands don't rate in the top causes of bird deaths in the country, not even the top 20, " she said.

"I think we are being a little bit over-reactionary to the deaths of birds in instances like this one."

The number of birds killed in tailings ponds each year is "ecologically insignificant" compared to the other factors that imperil populations, she said.

After cats, both domestic and feral, the biggest bird killers are collisions with tall structures and road deaths. Those three causes combined are responsible for 95 per cent of bird deaths, according to a study by Environment Canada.

'Out-of-sight, out-of-mind'

Tens of thousands of birds land on toxic tailings ponds every year. Of those, an average of 200 are reported dead, she said.

The issue deserves public attention, and more research, she said, but efforts to curtail the losses should be based on facts, not outrage.

"We know that up to a couple of hundred birds die after landing in the tailings ponds every year, but it only makes the news when a bunch of birds do it at once," Cassady St. Clair said. "It's a little bit of naive, out-of-sight-out-of-mind thinking."

Current federal environmental regulations classify any bird landing on a tailings pond as illegal, since all tailings are classified as toxic. But the blanket approach to enforcement is not working, said Cassady St. Clair.

If the laws were softened, it would allow operators to focus on problem areas and boost deterrents when bad weather increases the risk of masse bird landings, she said.

"The law is being broken every time a bird lands, so clearly one of those two things has to give," she said.

"Either we need better deterrent systems that can actually prevent that, and I don't think that's possible on this scale, under a major migratory corridor. Or we need to change the interpretation of these laws, and that might actually allow operators to increase deterrent efficacy for times like this one."

Listen to Edmonton AM with host Mark Connolly, weekday mornings at CBC Radio One, 93.9 FM in Edmonton. Follow the morning crew on Twitter @EdmAMCBC

With files from Ariel Fournier