This past Monday, April 28, about 500 migrating ducks drowned after landing on a man-made tailings “pond” (officially, the Aurora Settling Basin), filled not with water but with toxic waste sludge from the Syncrude tar sands (the province of Alberta, Syncrude, and the other mining corporations prefer the tidier sounding “oil sands”) north of Fort McMurray, at the Aurora North Site mine. The tailings pit was constructed along a major flyway for migrating waterfowl.
According to Syncrude, company crews were out yesterday looking for more survivors, but CBC reporters who rented a helicopter to fly over the site (because Syncrude officials closed the area to journalists) said that they saw only one boat on the “pond”.
From a CBC report:
“A completely oiled bird would likely sink immediately. We’ve recovered the ones that we could,” said Steve Gaudet, a Syncrude staff member managing the recovery effort.
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 [that would be our blizzard, about which Albertans were advised days in advance], 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.
Her thoughts were echoed by Glen Semenchuk, executive director of the Federation of Alberta Naturalists, who said Tuesday, “I’m surprised that it took this long to happen.” He said the Federation has been concerned for years about the location of the pit along a major flyway. Semenchuk added, “We were assured by the government that as part of their licensing they would ensure a deterrent program would be in place and now we are seeing that deterrent program does have some flaws in it,” he said.
The collective size of tailings pits for Syncrude and the other major corporations, including Suncor and Albian Sands Energy, is approximately 50 square kilometers. An estimated 1.8 billion liters of tailings are produced every day in Alberta. For more on the process and the Fort McMurray oil sands, I highly recommend the article “Unconventional Crude” by Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker, November 12, 2007. The New Yorker has only an abstract available online (see previous link) but you can find the article in its entirety online here at The Boreal Songbird Initiative website. Many thanks.
From the CTV website,
The tailings ponds are formed during the oilsands extraction process, Miles Kitagawa of the Alberta Toxics Watch Society told CTV.ca on Wednesday.
“Syncrude utilizes something called the Clark hot water process, where they crush bitumen-containing oil, mix it with heated water and use that to separate the bitumen out of the ore,” he said.
The leftover water is dumped in the tailings ponds, which contain a mixture of clay, sand water and hydrocarbons, he said.
Drinking a glass of water from a tailings pond would be like drinking a diluted glass of oil or gasoline, Kitagawa said.
The duck deaths came to light because of an anonymous tip to a Fish & Wildlife office, before Syncrude notified Fish & Wildlife or Alberta Environment.
Alberta Environment, which doubtless is shocked, shocked to find such environmental unsustainability going on in here, released the following statement on Tuesday: “Under the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act (EPEA), Alberta requires that Syncrude have a waterfowl protection plan in place that includes a comprehensive bird deterrent program for all tailings ponds. If Syncrude did not comply, the Alberta government will take action, with penalties up to $1 million.”
Which, really, is chump change compared to a) the $25 million the province of Alberta announced the other week it is going to drop on a three-year public relations and advertising campaign to convince the U.S. that its oil isn’t dirty but clean and green and environmentally sustainable; and, b) the $100 billion the oil industry plans to spend over the next decade in northern Alberta’s oil sands to triple oil production. Of course, toxic tailings would also likely triple. 1.8 billion liters produced daily x 3 = 5.4 billion liters.
Since migratory birds are a federal responsibility, Environment Canada has said it will work in conjunction with the provincial department. Which is good, because I’m probably not the only person who suspects that the Alberta government will be reprimanding Syncrude out of one side of his mouth, and encouraging the corporation to get up and at ’em quickly to start making more money again out of the other side.
For example, on the one side, yesterday in the Legislature, Premier Ed Stelmach said, “I can assure all Albertans that we’re going to pursue this matter very diligently.” He added, “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.” When Stelmach and the provincial goverment say they mean (Big) business, they mean it. Not for nothing do “trading partners” come first in the equation.
On the other side, and on the same day, Stelmach’s Environment Minister Rob Renner was telling reporters, “It’s a real blow to our messaging that we are working very, very hard ensure that we do have sustainable development.” If only the provincial government had as much interest in environmental stewardship as in its corporate “messaging”. (But of course, we Albertans have gotten just what we deserved.)
In fact, this same week, Alberta’s deputy premier Ron Stevens was in Washington, DC, on a mission to shore up the province’s poor environmental image in the United States (here’s a Globe & Mail article before it disappears before the pay-per-view firewall). From the article,
Mark Cooper, a spokesman travelling with the deputy premier, said there’s “no doubt” Alberta needs to do more on the environmental front, but this mission aims to “correct the myths, inaccuracies and distortions” about the province’s record.
And from the article, “Alberta fights ‘dirty oil’ stigma”, in last Saturday’s Calgary Herald,
Alberta’s $100-billion bonanza to develop the Athabasca oilsands has fractured into a tale of two solitudes.
In the eyes of the provincial government, the massive projects will unlock a secure and environmentally sustainable source of energy for Canada and the world.
In the words of environmental activists, they are among the most destructive developments on the planet.
These two divergent views are increasingly clashing at home and abroad. What began as a minor annoyance to the Stelmach government has evolved into a full-blown battle over Alberta’s oilsands image.
The latest salvo came Thursday as Premier Ed Stelmach addressed more than 1,000 party faithful at an annual fundraising dinner in Edmonton.
Amid the premier’s boasts about a “New West” and Alberta’s oilsands bounty, an unfurled Greenpeace banner read: “$telmach: the best Premier oil money can buy.”
[Saturday, April 26] the battle shifts to Washington, D.C., where deputy premier Ron Stevens begins a five-day mission to bolster the oilsands brand.
Protesters in polar bear suits are gearing up, just as they did for the premier’s visit to U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney in January.
“It’s pretty much the dirtiest form of oil and the wrong answer to our energy addiction,” says Steve Kretzmann of Washington-based Oil Change International.
“Given the way things are going (with climate change), we don’t see that level of concern ebbing anytime soon.”
The Alberta government is ramping up its effort, too. This week it was revealed the province will spend $25 million over three years on an advertising and marketing campaign to boost the Alberta “brand.”
Stelmach vowed he won’t let environmentalists hijack public perception of the province’s oil.
The stakes for the province are high: $100 billion in national and international investment is flooding into the region, making it a strategic source of new global oil supply and a boon to the entire Canadian economy.
“That’s why in the speech I talked about taking the message to other jurisdictions around the world, getting the message out,” Stelmach said Thursday.
“I’m not going to leave it up to Greenpeace, Sierra Club or any of these other groups.” [For a list of links to Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and any of those other groups, scroll down] …
“The tar sands are one of the world’s largest environmental disasters and they are occurring right on this government’s watch,” Greenpeace’s Mike Hudema yelled as two security guards escorted him out of the premier’s dinner Thursday.
This sort of talk — and the potential risk it carries — has captured the attention of Canada’s powerful oil lobby.
Brian Maynard, a vice-president with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, says the oilpatch is increasingly fielding concerns from the public about the oilsands’ impact on the environment.
“Industry is taking this very seriously,” Maynard says, “which is why we are trying to do a much better job of listening and responding to people’s concerns because, yes, this does have the potential to significantly impact our business.”
American policy experts agree Alberta can’t afford to ignore the anti-oilsands campaign.
They say there’s a growing danger Alberta and its oilsands will be tarnished in the United States, and this could impact its energy exports.
Chris Sands, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Hudson Institute who specializes in Canada-U.S. relations, contends Alberta has both “the blessing and the curse” of being on everyone’s mind right now.
“The issue for Canada is that Alberta’s oilsands may well be stigmatized as dirty oil of the sort we shouldn’t want to purchase in the United States,” Sands says.
“That has a huge impact on the saleability and the value even of the resource, particularly in the near term before it’s established its place in the market.” …
Lest you think all of this is just about several hundred dirty birds, consider this, from the above-mentioned Elizabeth Kolbert article in The New Yorker:
Fort Chipewyan, which was founded in the seventeen-eighties as a trading post, is a native village; about half its twelve hundred or so residents are Mikisew Cree, and the other half are Athabasca Chipewyan. It has a few hundred houses, a post office, and two churches – one Anglican and one Catholic – both perched near the edge of the lake. To a certain extent, Fort Chip, as it is known locally, has shared in the tar-sands boom; many residents of the village work construction jobs in Fort McMurray and return home only on their days off. At the same times, there’s a good deal of concern in the village about what is happening. A peculiarly high number of cases of a rare cancer have been reported in town; this has prompted speculation that toxins from the tailings ponds are working their way downriver into the lake, which provides the village with drinking water as well as with staples like whitefish and pike. Meanwhile, both the Chipewyan and the Cree consider many of the tracts that the Alberta government has leased to oil companies to be their ancestral lands. The week before I visited Fort Chip, there was a rally at the local community center, calling for a moratorium on new projects. …
More on the unusual increase in cancer rates and other illnesses at Fort Chip here and here. The Globe & Mail had a very good article several years ago, which is behind the $$ firewall, but which you can find here
More to read:
An article about Syncrude, July 2004, by Brendan I. Koerner from Wired: “The Trillion-Barrel Tar Pit”
The Peak Oil Crisis: Stirrings in Ottawa“ by Tom Whipple, Falls Church News-Press (Virginia), March 20, 2008
Shell Oil hoping to increase production in tar sands, an article by Terry Macalister inThe Guardian (UK), March 18, 2008
Al Jazeera on “Alberta’s Heavy Oil Burden”, March 12, 2008
Parkland Institute op-ed by Gordon Laxer as it appeared in The Globe & Mail, February 7, 2008; Gordon Laxer on CBC Radio’s “The Current”, February 6, 2008; Gordon Laxer’s new report, in PDF, Freezing in the Dark: Why Canada Needs Strategic Petroleum Reserves.