In northern Alberta, harsh weather is a fact of life, and late October is pretty much winter. On October 26th, 350 migrating ducks got caught in a storm, possibly with freezing rain, and were forced to land. They found open water right below them, but it was the absolute worse place for them to seek shelter.
The open water was Mildred Lake, one of many surface tailings ponds maintained by Syncrude Energy to hold toxic wastewater from its oil sands recovery operations. Despite the deterrents put in place by Syncrude, including radar-controlled noisemakers, the birds still came down to the water.
Mine workers later found the ducks, fouled with bitumen and other toxins from the water. Though the birds were rescued, the poisoned waters still had their effect. All 350 ducks had to euthanized.
For Syncrude, and indeed the tar sands industry, the timing couldn’t have been worse. This latest news comes three days after a record judgment was handed down for the deaths of 1600 birds two years ago, when, in a similar situation, the birds landed in a tailings pond and either died or were euthanized. At the same time, a planned pipeline from Alberta to the Gulf Coast refineries has been delayed, due to the American Federal government needing further time for an environmental assessment.
Even as the world looks to more environmentally-friendly and sustainable fuels and energy, the demand is still there for fossil fuels, and it will be for a long time to come. The tar sands exist because of this demand. It will be many years before electric cars and fuel cells can supplant fossil fuels. In the meantime, companies like Syncrude need to do more to ensure the safety of animals, and people, that may run afoul of their toxic dumps.