Published on
The Edmonton Journal (Canada)

Mother Nature's Protest

The image of 500 ducks, silently lying at the bottom of a toxic lake, speaks volumes

Graham Thomson

A flock of birds has done what a gaggle of environmental protesters could not -- embarrass the Alberta government over development of the oilsands and focus a critical eye on how Alberta protects the environment.

Almost all of the estimated 500 migratory ducks that innocently landed on a Syncrude tailings pond Monday are dead or dying today. Maybe half a dozen survived.

It was an environmental protest as staged by Mother Nature -- and couldn't have been more effective if each bird had worn a little "Stop the Tar Sands" T-shirt as it disappeared beneath the surface of the toxic lake.

The end wouldn't have come quickly for the ducks. The oil and other chemicals in the sludge would have poisoned them inside and out, robbing them of their natural waterproof coating, and they would have eventually drowned. According to Syncrude officials, the bodies have sunk to the bottom of the lake so we don't have an exact number of dead.

Not that it matters if it was 400 or 500. The story made headlines around the world and has focused attention on the environmental impact of the oilsands with a drama that protesters and opposition politicians could only dream of.

It's one thing to tell people the oilsands produce toxic byproducts but quite another when people learn that animals die by the hundreds after swimming in those chemicals. It is one thing to call the giant pools of toxic waste by the innocuous term "ponds" but quite another when people learn the ponds are in essence gigantic open sewers from oilsands production. One of Syncrude's "ponds" has a circumference of 20 kilometres. You'd need more than two hours to walk around it.

Not that you'd be allowed anywhere near the ponds. They are closely guarded by the oilsands plants, which are supposed to use high-tech methods such as radar-operated noise cannons that frighten birds away before they can land on the toxic lakes. Syncrude has said its noise makers weren't working because "extreme winter weather conditions" the past week delayed the deployment of the cannon. Then a rapid spring thaw melted the ice on the tailings ponds, which presented the migrating birds with what to them looked like an enticing place to rest for a bit.

Both Syncrude and the government insist that the deaths of hundreds of birds from a single flock is unprecedented, that maybe a few dozen birds at most die in the ponds each year.

We'll just have to take the government's word for it. And the government will just have to take Syncrude's word for it.

When it comes to reporting these kinds of environmental disasters, the companies are pretty much on a self-monitoring or honour system. And it would appear the system didn't work smoothly, at least not from initial government finger pointing.

"The issue here is that there is a non-compliance of a very strict condition of the licence to operate," said a sombre Premier Ed Stelmach in a news conference on Tuesday.

Stelmach said the government wasn't told about the incident by Syncrude but by an anonymous tipster at 11 o'clock on Monday morning.

Syncrude officials insist they were just about to alert the government about the dead and dying birds at noon on Monday when the government called.

The government says the incident is under investigation and if Syncrude broke government regulations it faces penalties up to $1 million. Not that Syncrude couldn't afford to pay such a fine. On Monday, as the birds made their fateful landing on the tailings pond, Syncrude announced a first-quarter profit of $298 million, an increase of 14 per cent over the same period last year.

Dead and dying birds never make for positive headlines, but this week's environmental tragedy had particularly bad timing for the government. Deputy Premier Ron Stevens is in Washington, D.C., as part of the government's $25-million public relations campaign to counter claims the oilsands is "dirty oil."

The government should be grateful, in a morbid way, that the dead birds sank to the bottom rather than bobbed to the surface. Otherwise, Syncrude workers would have to scoop up the carcasses of 500 birds -- and that wouldn't make for the best of photo ops if you're trying to convince the world your oil is not ethically and environmentally dirty.

Stelmach did try to put a brave face on the incident on Wednesday, saying his tough talk about punishing Syncrude if necessary "gives us an opportunity to tell not only our American trading partner but all the world that we mean business when it comes to the rules and regulations we have in place with respect to protection of environment."

He also predictably tried to present himself as a victim of the environmental lobby, saying the government's $25- million public relations campaign "is small compared to the combined money of the various lobby groups that are out there."

Oh, there are surely victims here -- roughly 500 of them lying silently at the bottom of a toxic lake.

© The Edmonton Journal 2008

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