Dead Ducks:The Envirornment and Making Clean Oil

Title: Dead Ducks: The Environment and Making “Clean” Oil

500 hundred ducks landed in a Syncrude toxic tailings pond 75 km north of Fort McMurry. Only 5 were strong enough to even try saving, of those, 3 have survived. The tailings pond contains water that is used to wash the oil from the tar sands. The contaminated water contains a mixture of heavy metals, sands and residual oil. Birds that land on the pond are quickly coated, loose their waterproofing and drown.

Syncrude claims it was caught unprepared by the winter weather

The company has said it normally has bird deterrents deployed on the three-kilometre-wide lake of waste from early spring until late fall. But the noisemakers and scarecrows were not in place because of the harsh winter weather last week, officials said.
Ruth Klienbub, a Fort McMurray bird watcher, told CBC News she has been seeing migrating birds all month.
“Everyone knows when migration happens. This has been documented for a century. They should have known better,” she said.
Kleinbub said the company should have had its deterrents, such as sonic cannons, in the field much earlier.
“The birds were here the first week of April,” said Kleinbub, a member of the Fort McMurray Field Naturalists and a director of the Federation of Alberta Naturalists. A birdwatcher, she said she saw waterfowl returning to the area three weeks ago.
“I think it’s absolutely ridiculous that they weren’t ready.”
Syncrude says it started deploying sonic cannons about a week ago, but had not been able to put anything out on the pond before the late spring storm.
Kleinbub said there’s no reason to stagger the deployment of the cannons.

The behavior of the ducks should have been predictable, especially for a company doing this for 30 years.

The unusual cold weather last week was bad timing for the large numbers of migrating waterfowl that annually pass through the area on their way to the Peace-Athabasca delta, said Colleen Cassady St. Clair, an associate professor of behavioural ecology and conservation biology.
“Those tailings ponds with the warm effluent in them become extremely attractive to them as rest sites.”
Oilsands operators have known for years that tailings ponds are attractive to waterfowl. So they should have expected the birds to show up after the late storm, she said.
“It would be a bit surprising if there wasn’t also an extra effort to get all their equipment operational.”
If there was one pond that didn’t have noisemakers set up yet, it would be expected that the ducks be more attracted to that site, she said.

The relevant government agencies had to learn about the incident from an anonymous phone call, 2 hours before the company called the incident in.

Gaudet said a company operator first discovered the ducks around 9:30 a.m. Monday. The report was called in to the company’s environmental office, then relayed to the province’s fish and wildlife office by noon. The province had already received an anonymous tip about the ducks by that time and had left a message with Syncrude, Gaudet said.
The company was supposed to call Alberta Environment immediately.
When asked why Alberta Environment wasn’t called right away, Gaudet said the company called the regulators it thought were best suited to handle the situation.
As for the timing of that call, Gaudet said: “Our initial activity is to get out into the field to witness and assess, and then to get to Alberta Environment or Fish and Wildlife or Sustainable Resource Development immediately to report it. I think, in this instance, a couple of hours to verify the numbers, to assess the situation, to get my environmental team on the ground was well worth it. I’d hate to be reporting in an unsubstantiated or a minor event that needs a major response.

I wonder why the anonymous phone call was made. Why was it anonymous ?

  1. The secrecy of the call would suggest that this incident had happened before. People do not make anonymous calls the first time an unforeseen tragedy occurs.
  2. It was rather serious in nature; if the caller could determine how serious the incident was on his/her initial survey, why did it take the company more than 2 hours to “assess” the situation. I suspect they were assessing the need to admit the truth.
  3. The company was planning on not reporting the incident. More importantly, there were serious repercussion for the caller if the company found out.

What is interesting is the story not being covered. this incident has been portrayed by the company as one unfortunate tragedy. It was created by an unexpected storm. However, the behavior of the ducks was entirely predictable, and the occurrence of the storm should have spurred the company to get the sonic deterrents in place even sooner. Given that birds had been seen migrating over the last month, not having deterrents in place even before the storm came makes no sense at all.

There is also the matter of the anonymous phone call and the two hour “assessment”. I strongly suspect that Syncrude has been indulging in insufficient self policing in the matter of meeting environmental regulations. the anonymity of the call speaks to a culture of secrecy in the company and the fact that it took 2 hours to contact the appropriate agencies (the caller apparently did not need two hours to determine the seriousness of the situation) suggests that the company was assessing other things such as the the ease of a coverup. If this truly was a one time incident, I suspect the anonymous call would not have been made. A one time incident could simply be portrayed as an error in judgement.

The premier of Alberta’s response

“Thirty years ago, Syncrude pioneered the bird aversion strategy, the research. For 30 years things went well, then one incident. That’s what’s being used by (the Liberals) to go and try and damage the reputation of the Department of the Environment, and of a company, and also this legislature.”

But two days later , likely realizing that the public was not that enamored with his staunch support for Syncrude, and his comment about 30,000 birds dying in wind turbines…

At the Alberta legislature Wednesday, Premier Ed Stelmach promised a full investigation into the incident.
“I can assure all Albertans that we’re going to pursue this matter very diligently,” he said.
Stelmach, when asked how the incident will be viewed in the United States, expressed confidence in the government’s actions.
“This gives us an opportunity to tell not only our American trading partners but all the world that we mean business when it comes to the rules and regulations we have in place with respect to protection of the environment,” the premier said.


2 responses to “Dead Ducks:The Envirornment and Making Clean Oil

  1. Pingback: Follow on Syncrude Duck Deaths « Incredible Visions

  2. beach July 1, 2010 at 9:37 pm

    nothing new, really: the same old whining and outright lies. Got any real solutions, skippy ?

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