Ecojustice Case – Nature Case Status: Closed

Standing up for the protection of migratory birds from tailings ponds

Melissa GorrieLawyer
Greenpeace CanadaClient
Alberta Wilderness AssociationClient
Migratory birds like the whooping crane are being killed by tailings ponds
Whooping Crane photo by Klaus Nigge/USFWS

Alberta’s Peace-Athabasca Delta is one of the most important bird habitats in North America. The region is made up of wetlands, rivers, and lakes, and provides an important passageway for approximately 1.5 million migratory birds, including the endangered Whooping Crane and 213 other bird species, during their spring and fall migrations. 

But despite its significance for migratory birds, the delta sits next door to one of the biggest industrial projects on the planet, the Alberta oil sands. 

The process of extracting bitumen from the ground results in large tailings ponds that are made up of a mix of water, sand, silt, clay, contaminants and unrecovered hydrocarbons — and are some of the largest in the world. For each barrel of bitumen mined from the oil sands, 1.5 barrels of toxic tailings waste is produced. That means that Alberta’s tailings ponds cover 220 square kilometres and contain 976 billion litres of liquid waste.

It is estimated that 200,000 birds land on oil sands tailings pond each year, with an estimated 5,000 deaths occurring annually. This number could be even higher, as birds soaked in bitumen could sink to the bottom of a tailings pond before detection or fly off after landing to die somewhere else.


Why was Ecojustice involved?

The Migratory Birds Convention Act restricts toxic substances from being deposited in areas frequented by migratory birds and the Species at Risk Act forbids the killing or harming bird species listed as endangered or threatened. 

That’s why Ecojustice, along with our friends at the Alberta Wilderness Association and Greenpeace Canada, called on the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development to investigate why the federal government does nothing as thousands of migratory birds are killed on tailings ponds every year.


What does this outcome mean?

While we are happy that the government took notice and answered some of our questions in their official response, we still think concrete steps need to be taken to protect migratory birds from being killed on tailings ponds. 

Under the Migratory Birds Convention Act and Species at Risk Act, the federal government has the legal tools and the power to hold oil sands operators accountable for harm to migratory birds.

It’s time the government do more to enforce the laws they have at hand to protect these important species. 

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