Industry Can Take Heavy Toll on Wildlife

Development ensnaring our wildlife

JORDAN VERLAGE/THE CANADIAN PRESS

A duck is force-fed at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Society of Edmonton, on April 30, 2008, after being transported from the Syncrude Canada tailings pond near Fort McMurray, Alta. Only five birds were saved after a flock of 500 mallards landed Monday on the partially frozen pond filled with oil sands waste.

Impact on wildlife (.pdf) Mallards trapped in toxic sludge, drowned caribou among iconic environmental disasters

May 03, 2008 04:30 AM

Linda Diebel
National Affairs Writer

The mallards would have been coming in feet first to land on the northern Alberta pond a few days ago, their big orange paddlers stretched out for that first splash of water.

They wouldn’t have landed without checking out the site. Any duck hunter will tell you how clever mallards (among other species) can be, sussing out the best-laid decoys and avoiding the cleverest of blinds. No, they would have given that water a beady duck eye, maybe even circling to be sure it was safe.

But they didn’t stand a chance.

About 500 ducks, mostly mallards, a few bufflehead, had no way of recognizing Monday the death trap of toxic sludge lurking under that expanse of water, tailings from Syncrude Canada’s oil sands operations in northern Alberta.

Their loss marks another iconic moment in the environmental degradation that always seems to accompany gangbuster development in Canada. It just keeps happening, despite warnings preceding every sad event.

Years ago in Quebec, the Cree and Inuit, as well as well as naturalists, warned massive flooding of the northern river systems for the province’s hydroelectric projects threatened caribou migration routes. Don’t worry, said the experts from Hydro-Quebec and the province. Leave it to us.

And so, in 1984, an estimated 10,000 caribou drowned crossing the Caniapiscau River where they had always crossed. That year they found only water without end. How long did they swim, searching for land that had always been there?

They’re still dying. Another 300 caribou drowned last year near the same site – after the problem was supposed to have been fixed.

And in 2008, there are ducks coated in oil on an established migratory route to their summering grounds in Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Alberta – despite the warning of groups like the Alberta Federation of Naturalists.

Philip Penner, the organization’s conservation director, said his members have urged the federal and provincial governments, as well as the oil companies to protect the environment.

“If we continue to let this happen, if we let it all fall apart, we are playing with the future of the wildlife, our future and the future of the planet,” Penner said yesterday. “These animals have a right to be there. It’s as if we have stopped caring, as if we’ve become disconnected from our own environment. We have stopped seeing the value.”

Syncrude Canada has apologized. The company said late snowstorms prevented timely installation of air cannons, used for noise to keep the birds away from the tailings ponds. Penner’s group argues the cannons should have been in place long ago, noting the birds come every year, often earlier, and are usually breeding by this time.

“We’ve had a system in place that’s worked well for decades … and we’re looking at all of the protocols,” Syncrude official Alain Moore said yesterday, adding the company wants to look forward to “ensure it will never happen again.”

“An apology from Syncrude – and a promise to do better,” said a posting at Syncrude Canada’s website.

For Penner and other naturalists, more’s the pain in understanding so completely how the ducks suffered. Birds depend on their feathers, preening themselves to distribute waterproofing oil. Toxic oil and tar destroy that coating and take away the insulating layer of air. Once coated, they die in many ways: some losing their buoyancy and sinking quickly, others floating, unable to fly, and slowly succumbing to hypothermia.

Others can fly, still coated. Yesterday, a Cree hunter shot a mallard covered in oil 250 kilometres away in Wood Buffalo National Park, raising the possibility it came from the same Syncrude tailings pond.

“There’s no way to know how many ducks are out there dying,” said Chris Early, a biologist at the Arboretum, University of Guelph.

“You just can’t take that many birds out in one fell swoop like that. They have survived so much, all the hazards of migrating, and then, suddenly – to do this to them?”

He knows the value of these birds, their habits, their idiosyncrasies. He’s written extensively about mallards, so well known to Canadians for the distinctive gleaming green head of the drake and the dull-coloured female’s loud, harsh quack.

Investigations have been promised, including by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who was in Calgary at the time and noted how “troubled” he was by the contamination. Penner and other environmentalists say they’re counting on it. Otherwise, they believe, consequences are dire.

“This makes one wonder how many other species end up in tailings ponds that we don’t know about,” said Penner. “I don’t think anyone will know how many ducks died. There are so many tailings ponds and the scary thing is they just keep growing in number.”

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