Climate

More Than 100 Birds Die After Landing On Tar Sands Waste Ponds In Canada

CREDIT: Emily Atkin

An aerial view of tar sands mining in Fort McMurray.

Despite the use of cannons, noise machines, and scarecrows, tar sands tailings ponds are still killing birds in Canada.

According to reports compiled by the Alberta Energy Regulator, 122 migratory birds have died this week at three tar sands operations in Alberta. The birds landed on the operations’ tailings ponds, the large pits that store the water, sand, clay, leftover oil, and toxic contaminants that are produced in the tar sands mining process. The AER said in a media release that weather may have been a factor in the birds’ landing and ultimate deaths — a spokesperson for Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., the company that’s in charge of one of the deadly tailings ponds, told the CBC there was “extreme fog” the morning that the birds landed on the pond.

“It’s disappointing to us when wildlife are harmed by our operations,” the spokesperson, Julie Woo, told the CBC. “We’re going to review our system to see if there’s additional ways beyond additional improvements we’ve already implemented to ensure this kind of incident doesn’t happen again.”

The AER is investigating the deaths to see whether or not the three companies’ bird deterrent systems, which include noise machines and scarecrows to scare off birds, were working. Suncor, one of the companies that experienced bird fatalities this week, told the Edmonton Journal that their deterrent systems scared off all but six of the 120 birds that tried to land on their tailings pond on Monday.

But past reports have shown that deterrent systems aren’t always effective in keeping birds away from tailings ponds. Colleen Cassady St. Clair, a biologist at the University of Alberta, has found that many migrating waterfowl get used to the sounds of loud cannons and noise machines around the tailings ponds “quite readily.” In 2013, as Audubon reports, researchers recorded more than 12,000 birds landing in 64 tar sands tailings ponds, despite the fact that all the ponds had noisemakers installed. And earlier this year, a study found that about 200,000 birds land on tailings ponds every year. According to St. Clair, lasers coupled with noise machines would be more effective in deterring birds away from the ponds.

Tailings ponds can be deadly for birds because the oil in them weighs the birds down, making it difficult or impossible to fly. The toxic chemicals in the ponds can also be absorbed through the birds’ skin. But tailings ponds aren’t the only risks the tar sands industry poses to birds. A June report from the National Wildlife Federation and Natural Resources Council of Maine found that the destruction of Canada’s boreal forest has been devastating to the more than 292 species of protected birds that call the boreal forest home for at least part of the year. According to the report, the destructive impact the tar sands industry has had on the boreal forest has resulted in the loss of anywhere from 58,000 to 402,000 birds.

Birds are also threatened by the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport oil from the tar sands region down through the U.S. to refineries on the Gulf Coast. The endangered whooping crane, whose numbers plummeted in the early 1900’s due to hunting and habitat loss, has a migration route that follows part of the proposed path of the pipeline. And the greater sage grouse, which makes its home in the Midwestern U.S. and is known to be shy and easily affected by habitat disturbances, could also be threatened by the pipeline’s construction and pumping stations.