Environment Forum

More dead birds in the oil sands

October 28, 2010

The Shell Muskeg River Mine demonstration tailings pond in northern, Alberta in seen in this undated handout photo. Shell Canada announced a new commercial size oil sands tailings project for the Canadian oil sands industry at their headquarters in Calgary today. REUTERS/Handout

What a week for Syncrude.

Just three days after the oil sands producer was fined $2.9 million for the deaths of 1,600 waterbirds in 2008, more ducks landed in one of their toxic waste ponds and had to be euthanized.

Could the timing be worse?

During a freezing rain storm on Monday, hundreds of ducks landed on a toxic tailings pond owned by the company in the oil sands of northern Alberta, Canada, putting the birds in contact with tar-like bitumen floating on the surface.

“I cannot express how disappointed and frustrated I am that this incident occurred,” Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner said of the latest bird deaths in a statement.

A smaller number of birds also landed on toxic ponds operated by Suncor and Shell in recent days, prompting the Alberta government to launch a “regional investigation” to make sure all bird deterrents were in place.

Another investigation is not exactly welcome news for stakeholders of the oil sands industry. Since June, the industry has been the subject of an international advertising campaign by environmental groups urging travelers to avoid Alberta (“the other oil disaster”) and a high-profile visit from Hollywood director James Cameron.

Yet at the same time, the region is enjoying renewed support from three U.S. senators who were invited to tour parts of the operation that sprawls an area the size of France.

The oil sands are the world’s second largest source of proven crude reserves after Saudi Arabia and geographically attractive to the U.S. energy market, but the energy-intensive extraction process is heavily criticized by environmentalists for its impact on air, water, wildlife and local communities.

One such community is the Fort Chipewyan First Nations reserve whose citizens live downstream from the oil sands.

They hosted the visit from Hollywood director Cameron and held a joint press conference to call for an investigation into their claims that rivers were unsafe for children to swim in and a growing health concern from the community.

The people in Fort Chipewyan are afraid to drink their own water. They’re afraid to eat the fish. They’re afraid of the river,” Cameron told a press conference.

Following the visit, Canada’s Environment Minister Jim Prentice assigned a new panel of experts to investigate how well water is being tested and monitored around the Alberta oil sands. Their report is expected in late November.

Fort Chip, as it is often referred, is an isolated community in northeastern Alberta that can be reached by plane or boat making access to neighboring communities difficult and food prices very expensive.

Because of this, many have relied on hunting and fishing as an inexpensive food source. Residents of the isolated community say there has been an increase in cancers and other illnesses that they believe is caused by water contaminated from toxins leaked from oil sands production.  Residents claim the fish they catch are deformed with tumors and they say they can no longer trust the environment.

In 2006, ongoing health concerns surrounding the residents of Fort Chipewyan were thrust into the international spotlight when the community’s long time fly-in physician and medical examiner Dr. John O’Conner said he found a higher than normal rise in the rate of terminal illnesses such as cancer being diagnosed in residents.

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Photo above shows The Shell Muskeg River Mine demonstration tailings pond in northern, Alberta in seen in this undated handout photo. REUTERS/Handout

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