Cannons, radar scanners and scarecrows will never completely prevent bird deaths in Alberta’s oilsands region, says a conservation expert charged with protecting waterfowl from open-pit mines.
“As a social and political problem, I think it’s pretty substantial,” said Colleen Cassady St. Clair, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Alberta and lead researcher behind the Research on Avian Protection Project.
“This industry has presented itself, and been presented by our government and our citizens, as one that can prevent this problem,” St. Clair said in an interview Thursday with CBC Radio’s Edmonton AM.
“This problem cannot be prevented with the current approach to it. And maybe that’s not even a realistic goal.”
The Alberta Energy Regulator is investigating after 123 birds were found dead at a tailings pond on the Suncor Fort Hills mine north of Fort McMurray.
The few horned larks found alive in the flock had to be euthanized on Sunday.
The oilsands giant said it was mystified by the discovery of dead and dying birds at the nearly completed mine, which has yet to produce its first official barrel of oil.
Fort Hills is jointly owned by Suncor, Total E&P Canada and Teck Resources. Suncor has launched an investigation to figure out why the birds were in the area, despite the presence of working deterrent systems, including cannons, radar and scarecrows.
Cassady St. Clair said she suspects the birds, exhausted by an impending storm, were attracted to lights in the area and touched down on the tailings pond, thinking it was solid ground.
The incident recalls previous bird deaths at oilsands tailings ponds.
Syncrude Canada was fined $3 million after more than 1,600 ducks were killed in a pond in 2008. No charges were laid in 2010, when 550 birds had to be destroyed due to an early winter storm that forced them to land on ponds at Syncrude and Suncor facilities.
In August, Syncrude Canada was charged with failing to properly store a hazardous substance in connection with the 2015 deaths of 31 great blue herons at its oilsands mine, an incident not related to its tailings ponds.
‘A little bit over-reactionary’
Cassady St. Clair said there will always be bird deaths connected to the oil industry.