New Brunswick·Special Report

'You could see the carnage everywhere': First responder remembers 2013 bird die-off

Barry Rothfuss knew he was witnessing a catastrophic die-off as soon as he arrived at the natural gas terminal in east Saint John around 6 o'clock on the evening of Sept. 14, 2013.

Wildlife steward speaks for first time about gathering evidence after Canaport flame killed thousands of birds

Three specimens of Canada Warbler which was added to Canada’s Species at Risk registry in 2010 due to long-term decline in its population. The reasons for the decline are unclear, but loss of primary forest on the wintering grounds in South America is a potential cause. Source: Government of Canada Species at Risk public registry. (Nick Hawkins)

Barry Rothfuss knew he was witnessing a catastrophic die-off as soon as he arrived at the natural gas terminal in east Saint John around 6 p.m. on Sept. 14, 2013.

The foggy night before, the company had been flaring excess gas and the roiling flame near the top of its flare stack had fatally lured thousands of songbirds off their migratory path. 

"You could see the carnage everywhere," said Rothfuss, executive director of the Atlantic Wildlife Institute, which was designated as a response service to Canaport LNG.

Rothfuss says he saw bird carcasses spread across an area the size of two football fields. 

"The vast majority were singed almost to the point beyond recognition, which made the identification end of the equation very, very difficult," said Rothfuss. 

Some dead birds appeared unharmed on the outside, but necropsies would later show they died from the fumes or from smashing into the ground. 

On Sept. 29, 2013, Canaport LNG completed a two-year $45 million equipment upgrade that reduce the amount of boil-off gas sent to flare. The company said the equipment would have been in service prior to the incident, if not for a mechanical breakdown. (CBC)

"The gases had basically burned their lungs," said Rothfuss. 

"And then some of them died from impact because they fell from such heights."

It's the first time he's given a media interview about his job collecting the bodies, which took his team of four about 10  days. 

For two years, Rothfuss was restrained by the terms of his license not to speak about Environment Canada's investigation or the role he played in gathering evidence. 

He was only released from that restriction after Nov. 5, 2015, when the Canaport LNG partnership, which is 75 percent owned by Repsol and 25 percent owned by Irving Oil, pleaded guilty to charges under the Migratory Birds Convention Act and the Species at Risk Act.

But by then, nobody thought to ask Rothfuss whatever happened to the more than 7,000 dead and dying birds that he found on site. 

An estimated 6,000 dead birds were recovered in the first two days of collection. The value was derived by weighing the volume of birds and dividing by the average bird weight. (Nick Hawkins)

Bagging and tagging the bodies

Rothfuss arrived on the scene with decades of experience that included mobilizing wildlife rescues in the early 1990s that were triggered by two separate oil spills in the state of New York.    

Since he co-founded the Atlantic Wildlife Institute in 1995 with his wife, Pam Novak, they have stayed busy, handling as many as 5,000 referrals a year from across Atlantic Canada.

Each call is about an animal or multiple animals killed or harmed by human and corporate activity.

Commissioned in 2008, the Canaport LNG terminal, Canada’s first liquefied natural gas terminal, is on the north shore of the Bay of Fundy at Saint John. (Nick Hawkins)

Rothfuss said he relied on his experience to improvize a response plan at the Canaport site that also complied with the industrial safety regulations in effect. 

That included a ban on cameras. Electronic devices were prohibited, he said, because any static electricity spark could have been disastrous. 

Under the supervision of Canaport staff, Rothfuss got into a flame-retardant suit and instructed his team to start collecting carcasses. 

The first night, his crew of four worked until midnight, sweeping dead birds into bags and chasing down the injured and traumatized survivors as they tried to shelter in the ditches and the undergrowth. 

"There was a huge congregation of gulls that were basically taking two, three, four birds at a time," Rothfuss said. "They were an easy food source for them, and they were just having a feast on what was left for them."

WATCH: Executive director of the Atlantic Wildlife Institute Barry Rothfuss recounts walking into Canaport LNG headquarters and being surrounded by crisped carcasses of dead songbirds.

Wildlife first responder speaks for the first time about gathering evidence at the Canaport LNG bird kill, when 7,000 were lured to their deaths by a flame. 2:30

On Sept. 15, the crew returned to the site at 7:30 in the morning.

By the end of the second day, they had collected about 6,000 dead birds, including American redstarts, ovenbirds, red-eyed vireos and eastern wood-pewee.

The bagging and tagging continued until day 10.

The crew would clear one zone only to come back a day or two later to find new carcasses on the ground. 

It's unclear how many birds fell over the cliff to the east side of the flare stack or how many disappeared into the Bay of Fundy. Rothfuss said there some places he would not let his workers go, out of concern for their safety. 

Few survivors

Rothfuss said he tried to save as many birds as he could, and staff back in Cookville at the Atlantic Wildlife Institute's main learning centre were preparing to rehabilitate any birds brought back alive. 

But half the 1,200 birds that were alive on site, died before they could be moved. 

The other half were packed into boxes, 25 per box, and loaded into a van.

When you take these birds off their high migratory paths and mess up their migratory cycle, it's pretty much a death sentence.- Barry Rothfuss

By the time the van reached the institute, more than two hours away, and was fully unloaded at 3 a.m. on Sept. 16, a third of the transported birds were dead on arrival. 

Only 64 lived long enough to be euthanized.

Rothfuss said the directive to inject each bird individually with an euthanasia solution was made on the 17th because it was clear the birds were too damaged and traumatized and had no hope of surviving captivity long enough to join the August migration. 

"When you take these birds off their high migratory paths and mess up their migratory cycle, it's pretty much a death sentence," said Rothfuss.

"It's not an easy call for us to make but it's the right call."

Damage scores

The institute was also responsible for identifying the birds and assessing each individual on a scale of one to six, indicating their anatomical damage. 

A bird rated one showed no appearance of external injury.

Donald McAlpine, head of the natural history department at the New Brunswick Museum, was tasked by Environment Canada with securing evidence from the scene of the bird die-off. (Nick Hawkins)

A bird rated six was nearly unidentifiable with feathers entirely burned off and toes and beaks partly deformed or totally melted from the heat. 

Eventually, all carcasses ended up at the New Brunswick Museum, where they were processed under the watch of Don McAlpine, the head of the natural history department.

By order of Environment Canada, which was overseeing the investigation, the carcasses had to be kept secured and locked away in freezers because they were evidence.

$750,000 penalty spent on conservation

As a result of the court proceedings, the Canaport LNG Partnership was ordered to pay a penalty of $750,000

Environment Canada says the money has been given to various groups, including the University of New Brunswick, which got $275,000 to set up scholarships for students enrolled in environmental programs.

Scientists in the United States and Canada reported in September in Science that the North American bird population has fallen by 29 percent since 1970 — the equivalent of 2.9 billion breeding adults. Source: Science. (Nick Hawkins)

The New Brunswick Museum got $150,000 to create a DNA database derived from the dead birds.

"That money was used to employ several people for a considerable length of time to go over all those birds, to weigh them, to measure them, to determine their sex, to identify them, and we saved their frozen tissue for genetics work," said McAlpine.

"We didn't save the skins from these birds as we typically do … because they were too badly burned to make that worthwhile."

"All that material has been archived here in the museum — not all 7,000 birds, but a subset of that total. And we're actually still working through to get it all organized."

In the end, 26 different species of birds were identified in the kill, including four dead Canada warblers, which are listed on the Species at Risk Act.

"And coincidentally, in the last couple of months, I've been contacted by researchers who are working on Canada warblers, who, in fact, want to make use of that material," said McAlpine.

McAlpine, Rothfuss and other researchers identified 26 separate species destroyed by the Canaport LNG event, including American redstarts, ovenbirds, red-eyed vireos and the eastern wood-pewee. (Nick Hawkins)

Lessons learned

Rothfuss said that in the end, it was disappointing that he couldn't save a single bird. 

But a lot was learned, he said, because Canaport LNG was willing to co-operate and allowed the scientists to do their work. 

He said Canaport LNG was operating according to its permits, and any responsibility for the incident should be shared by the regulator that approved those permits. 

He recommended the company avoid all flaring when bird migration-monitoring programs suggest the risk is high.

Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada issue forecasts on when and where birds are moving. 

The New Brunswick Museum in Saint John was given $150,000 of the $750,000 fine paid by Canaport to build a DNA database from the birds that were seized on site. (Nick Hawkins)

Rothfuss said industry needs to do a better job at planning for mitigation, if such an event should happen again.

In a news release issued Nov. 5, 2015, general manager Pedro Boyra said Canaport LNG sincerely regretted the harm caused in the incident.

"This has been a difficult and regrettable matter and we accept full responsibility," said the statement.

The company also pointed out that two weeks after the die-off, Canaport LNG completed a $45 million upgrade that significantly reduced the need to flare. 

McAlpine, Rothfuss and their researchers were tasked with grading the anatomical damage to each bird on a scale of one to six. A bird rated one would appear to be undamaged on the outside. A bird rated six would be unrecognizable, with feathers, beaks and toes all burned away. (Nick Hawkins)

"This equipment would have been in service prior to the incident, if not for a mechanical breakdown," said the statement. 

Canaport LNG also said it now actively monitors bird-migration projections and plans maintenance activities during times that avoid peak migration and adverse weather conditions as much as possible. 

Canaport LNG also installed an audio system that deters birds during flaring.

Rothfuss said he's never been called back to respond to an incident there involving burned birds. 

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