Alberta investigating death of blue herons at Syncrude site

Alberta investigating death of blue herons at Syncrude site
Dozens of blue herons, a protected species in Canada, were found dead at a Syncrude mine site in northern Alberta, leaving local environmentalists and indigenous groups devastated and looking for more stringent reclamation requirements for industry.Photo: Jeffery Keaton/Creative Commons.

The Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) issued an environmental protection order against Syncrude Canada Ltd. last week after dozens of blue herons were found dead at one of the company’s oilsands sites just north of Fort McMurray.

The order requests the company collect water and soil samples from its Mildred Lake oilsands mine site for analysis after the carcasses were discovered by a worker on Aug. 5. According to a statement from Syncrude, the birds were found in an inactive sump located in the southwest corner of the site.

“Syncrude has reported that there are 30 dead birds. We haven’t confirmed that number at this time so we’re just saying it’s approximately 30,” said Bob Curran, director of public affairs for AER. “They are in different stages of decomposition, so it would appear that they died at different times.”

Under the order, Syncrude will have to develop a wildlife mitigation plan and detailed delineation and remediation plan for Mildred Lake. Daily public reports are required to be published to the company’s website throughout the process and, within 30 days of completing the studies, a final report must be submitted to AER.

Syncrude’s investigation into the cause of death was reportedly underway before the protection order was released. Soon after the deceased birds were discovered, the company said staff took wildlife deterrent measures in the area. Those included erecting wildlife fencing with field personnel actively monitoring the site, placing six propane-powered cannons around the area and rotating the location of those cannons on a regular basis, placing six effigies on the sump and installing an active robotic falcon to scare away other wildlife.

AER has commenced its own investigation into the deaths as well, the results of which Curran said will be released to the public upon completion.

The blue heron is protected under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, designated as a species of special concern.

First Nations call for better protections

It’s just like one tragedy after another and it’s become so normalized.
—  Jesse Cardinal, Keepers of the Athabasca

Indigenous groups in the region are speaking out about the tragic discovery.

“In less than one month we have seen two major events that clearly demonstrate that something is seriously wrong,” said Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) Chief Allan Adam in a press release, referencing a recent leak from a Nexen Energy pipeline at the company’s Long Lake oilsands facility. The spill is thought to be one of the largest in Alberta’s history, with about five million litres of emulsion spreading over 16,000 square-metres of land.

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

Adam called upon the province’s NDP government to “take swift action” to uphold its recent promise to improve both environmental standards and relations with First Nations in Alberta.

“Operations have grown and yet we see a lagging record of reclamation leaving large areas under various stages of contamination,” said ACFN communications coordinator Eriel Deranger. “It’s clear reclamation needs to be prioritized more aggressively and better monitoring needs to be established for all stages of operations so we don’t see continued incidents like this.”

Environmental protection organization Keepers of the Athabasca agreed with ACFN and called on the NDP to amend regulations to slow the pace of oilsands development to allow the science to catch up.

“As it stands, there’s no cure for the tailings ponds. There’s no treatment for the tailings ponds. I don’t think people realize that,” said Keepers coordinator Jesse Cardinal, though noting that new methods of cleaning up leakages are currently on trial. “The pace and scale is simply too fast and we want the government to hold off on any new approvals until some of the science can be proven. We’ve never been a group to say shut down the tar sands; everybody knows that’s unrealistic.”

Cardinal pointed to a study, conducted by the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defence Council in 2008, which explored how many boreal birds – currently alive or yet to be born – would be lost if all the oilsands projects proposed in Alberta were approved. Based on available information on birds’ breeding and nesting habits and the regularity of incidents, the council estimated a death toll of six to 166 million birds over the next 50-60 years.

For the past five years, the Keepers have worked with indigenous groups around Fort McMurray to hold healing walks as a peaceful means of protesting the oilsands. This year, a new healing march will be dedicated to the Nexen spill, and now, the loss of the blue herons.

“I think the tailings pond incident is one more reason to continue having a healing event,” Cardinal said. “It’s just like one tragedy after another and it’s become so normalized.”

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