Environmental groups call for investigation into federal government’s failure to regulate and carry out tailings ponds enforcement actions

EDMONTON — Environmental groups are calling on the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development to investigate the federal government’s failure to address harm to migratory birds that come into contact with tar sands tailings ponds.

“Each year, hundreds of thousands of birds mistake tailings ponds for natural bodies of water.  As many as 5,000 preventable deaths occur as result,” said Melissa Gorrie, Ecojustice lawyer.  “Under the Migratory Birds Convention Act, the federal government has the power to hold tar sands operators responsible for these impacts to migratory birds, but have so far failed to act.”

Gorrie submitted a letter to the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development in the Office of the Auditor General of Canada today on behalf of Alberta Wilderness Association and Greenpeace Canada, seeking answers about the federal government’s failure to regulate and carry out enforcement actions related to migratory birds and tailings ponds.

In November 2014, 122 birds were killed after landing on tailings ponds in northern Alberta. No enforcement action was taken by the provincial or federal government. In 2008, more than 1,600 ducks died after landing on a tailings pond operated by Syncrude Canada Ltd., but charges were only brought by the federal and provincial governments after Ecojustice lawyers launched a private prosecution on behalf of a concerned citizen.

Many tar sands operators rely on bird deterrent systems (ex. noise cannons) to discourage landings, but these systems are not an effective, long-term solution to prevent harm to birds. Research funded by fines levied on Syncrude indicated that 40 per cent of birds observed during daytime land on deterrent-equipped tailings ponds even in good weather.

“Bird-deterrent systems are failing, with unacceptably high bird landings even in good conditions,” said Andrea Johancsik, conservation specialist at Alberta Wilderness Association. “For birds in northern waters, even a small amount of oil or other contaminants can later result in poor body condition, loss of reproductive capacity or death. We must do more to prevent this harm.”

The Peace-Athabasca Delta in northern Alberta is the most important waterfowl nesting and staging area in North America.  More than 214 bird species have been recorded there, the majority of which need to fly over or near tar sands region during migration.

“The federal government has the power to hold operators accountable for the impacts to migratory birds,” said Keith Stewart, climate and energy campaigner with Greenpeace Canada.  “But so far it has failed to act on its own accord, which is why we look to the Commissioner for answers. These birds need protection, and we are calling on the federal government to live up to its obligations to provide that protection.”

Read the full letter submitted to the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development.