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Mystery remains regarding bird deaths at mine site.


The discovery of about 30 dead blue herons near a run-off pond at a Syncrude operation in northeastern Alberta has resulted in an outcry against oversight and management of oilsands operations.

"While the birds may not have been found in a tailing pond it's clear the birds succumbed after exposure to something in the region. This draws out some serious concerns about how monitoring during the various stages of operations is being done. Something is failing and there is a real need to review regulatory management and monitoring parameters," said Eriel Deranger, communications coordinator of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.

Deranger said the birds were found at the Mildred Lake mine site in an area that is not actively under development in an abandoned Syncrude site location.

"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," she said.

Bob Curran, spokesman with the Alberta Energy Regulator, said the regulator inspected all the dams at the Mildred Lake site only two weeks before, from July 21 to July 23, as a regular inspection. The sump ponds were not part of the inspection.

He added it has yet to be determined what caused the deaths of the birds. AER is in charge of the investigation.

As part of an environmental protection order issued by the regulator four days after it received word of the deaths, Syncrude was directed to collect water and soil samples from the site.

Those samples, along with information regarding wildlife deterrents Syncrude had in place at the Mildred Lake mine site at the time the birds were discovered, will be part of the "full analysis" AER will undertake, said Curran.

The birds, in various stages of decomposition, were found by Syncrude personnel working at the Mildred Lake mine site and reported to AER on Aug. 7. Two days previously, Syncrude personnel discovered a distressed blue heron exposed to bitumen. Syncrude contacted Alberta Fish and Wildlife and was given permission to euthanize the bird.

"Although this wasn't on a tailings pond, which has very specific deterrent systems in place, the company is still responsible for ensuring there's no impacts to wildlife on its mine site in general," said Curran. "If they need deterrents at other places on the site, then we would expect that they have those in place."

The EPO, issued Aug. 11, also directed Syncrude to develop a wildlife mitigation plan. According to Syncrude's website, the company has already taken those steps. Along with the six effigies that "remain in place," six rotating cannons are now being used, two of which have been repositioned to the sump floor; two falcons are operating in autonomous mode; a fence is being maintained and monitored; wildlife fencing completed; and the access to the site is being controlled around the clock.

The deaths of these birds, in the vicinity of oilsands operations, are just the latest. More than 1,600 ducks died after they landed on a Syncrude tailings pond in 2008 and the company was fined $3 million. In 2010 and 2014, freak winter storms resulted in the deaths of approximately 750 birds when they were forced to land on tailings ponds. No charges were laid then.

Curran says AER is presently working with the University of Alberta to review existing deterrents in an attempt to address the issue of extreme winter weather conditions forcing waterfowl to land on tailings ponds, even though "you basically have a company doing everything right." Curran says the study is expected to be complete this fall.

A report commissioned by the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation in 2011, when the First Nation was battling with Shell Canada over Pierre River mine and Jackpine mine expansion, says development in the region has been considered a serious threat to birds since the 1970s. The study stated, in part, that "the presence of an extensive network of industrial waterbodies along an internationally significant migratory bird corridor poses risks to migratory and resident birdsO.. With increasing presence, size, and distribution of tailings ponds, the hazard to birds also increases."

The study, prepared by MSES out of Calgary, noted that wetlands in the region were decreasing and that the surface area of tailings ponds exceeded natural bodies in some areas.

This latest mass death of waterfowl is an indication of how monitoring needs to be stepped up, said Carolyn Campbell, conservation specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association.

The province's Alberta Wild Species General Status Listing 2010,' classifies blue herons as "sensitive," which means the "overall trend for this species may be decreasing." The entire Alberta population is dependent on fewer than 100 known nesting colonies. Management of these key habitats and protection from human disturbance is essential, she said.

"The death of 30 great blue herons at one site makes it all the more important to reduce the significant adverse cumulative effects to wildlife habitat that is now occurring in the mineable and in situ oil sands regions," said Campbell.

She notes that waterfowl mortality statistics only account for birds found dead on-site. There has been no tracking of birds, who have landed on the tailings ponds, flown away and then succumbed to pollution-related causes.

"I think at the root of it is there's been pretty unmanaged growth of the accumulative impacts of oilsands and these hazardous waterbodies are only one. We need to keep managing the footprint of these projects much, much better, including contaminated waters for both wildlife and ecosystem impacts," said Campbell.

Curran said no deadline has been set for AER to issue its report on the Mildred Lake mine site.

"We don't set timelines for investigations because depending on the amount of information we have to gather, how complex it is, how difficult it is to do the analysis, the time can vary widely as to how long it takes to conduct them," he said.

"Once that assessment is complete we'll decide how we're going to move forward. Whether or not we've going to pursue enforcement."

Enforcement could mean formal prosecution, Curran says.

AER's findings will be made public.

By Shari Narine

Windspeaker Contributor
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Author:Narine, Shari
Date:Sep 1, 2015
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