Wednesday, October 27, 2010

More Birds Die in a Syncrude Oil Tailings Pond

Just last week, the Syncrude finally received an historically large fine for the deaths of 1600 waterbirds in one of its oil tailings ponds in Alberta. This week, another one of their tailings ponds is involved in yet another case of oiled waterfowl. At least 230 waterfowl were euthanized after landing in one of Syncrude's ponds during a rainstorm.
Syncrude released a statement in the afternoon saying a freezing rain storm made it difficult for the birds to fly, causing dozens of the waterfowl to land at various locations on the company's site, including roads, parking lots and the Mildred Lake tailings pond. Originally spokeswoman Cheryl Robb said the government ordered about 125 of the birds that came in contact with the bitumen pond euthanized.

Approximately two hours later, a company called — emphasizing it wants to be open and transparent — with a revised number of duck deaths: 230. After 5 p.m., the government said it was conducting a regional investigation into why bird landings occurred at multiple oilsands facilities, including Suncor and Shell sites.

Alberta Environment spokeswoman Cara Tobin said there were “a handful” of bird deaths at Suncor and provincial investigators are being sent to a Shell site.

“It will become part of the larger investigation,” Tobin said. “It’s interesting that it’s happened at more than one site.”
According to Syncrude, its bird-deterrent tools were operational but failed to stop the tired waterfowl from landing in the ponds. Similar incidents occurred at ponds owned by Shell and Suncor, but with fewer ducks killed. In my opinion, a deterrent system should be able to work during severe weather since rain is a common event during migration season.

The incident is increasing political pressure for oil companies to clean up tailings ponds and for the national and provincial governments to regulate oil sands operations more effectively.
"I'm more than disappointed. I'm angry," Alberta NDP MLA Rachel Notley said. "For the last two years, since the last time this happened, the government has done nothing but invest money in PR."

"What needs to happen is the government needs to finally take this seriously. They need to take action, they need to enforce their own standards, they need to increase penalties, so they actually serve as a deterrent. That's not happening right now."

Notley said the latest incident creates an impression that the province isn't taking its obligation to develop and clean up the oilsands seriously enough.

According to Greenpeace, the industry needs to stop using tailings ponds.

"It's obvious that the provincial and federal governments are asleep at the wheel in regulating the tar sands industry and that nothing has changed since 1,600 ducks died two years ago," Greenpeace Alberta campaigner Mike Hudema said in a news release. "Syncrude needs more than a slap on the wrist and this government needs to do more than act as a public relations firm for the tar sands."
Whether political pressure will be sufficient to lead to reform remains to be seen. However, some U.S. politicians and business owners are feeling sufficient pressure to show concern over oil sands environmental problems.

Alberta Environment officials are still investigating the tailings ponds of the three companies, so the numbers and other details may change.

Update (10/27, 4:30 pm): The number of dead ducks has risen to 350, and there may be more in the pond.
Oilsands giant Syncrude says 350 birds have now died after landing on the Mildred Lake tailings pond Monday night while Suncor said the grim tally on their ponds rose to 40 ducks....

Tailing ponds are a toxic slurry of chemicals and hydrocarbons used to separate bitumen from sand.

Reporters were invited to visit Syncrude's Mildred Lake facility Wednesday where a full-scale recovery operation is underway. Several boats are trolling for birds while others on shore are using nets. It's expected the operation will take another week.

Syncrude president and CEO Scott Sullivan said the number of dead waterfowl will continue to climb. Speaking at the recovery command post, he said he's disappointed the deaths occurred despite the company's deterrent system.
According to the local radio station in Fort McMurray, Suncor reported 40 dead waterfowl and Shell has not reported any.