UPDATE: 122 birds dead after landing on three separate oilsands sites

Watch above: Alberta’s energy regulator is looking into more cases of birds landing on oilsands tailings ponds. As Fletcher Kent reports, three companies filed reports Tuesday.

EDMONTON – Alberta’s energy regulator is investigating after waterfowl landed – or tried to land – on three Athabasca oilsands sites Tuesday.

“The companies that have reported the incidents are Syncrude Canada at that Mildred Lake facility, the CNRL Horizon facility – their tailings pond – as well as Suncor Energy’s tailings pond,” said Ryan Bartlett.

The Public Affairs officer for Alberta Energy Regulator said the AER began hearing reports from companies around noon Tuesday and they continued until nightfall.

Syncrude told Global News roughly 30 birds were recovered from one of its tailings ponds. The company claims all deterrents were operational.

CNRL said about 60 birds landed on its tailings pond. The company is still determining exactly how many died. It said its deterrence systems were working, but that there was extreme fog in the area.

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Suncor said about 120 birds tried to land on one of its tailings ponds Tuesday, but deterrents were operational. However, six birds landed.

Late Wednesday, the regulator confirmed 122 waterfowl died after landing on the three sites.

It said weather in the Athabasca oilsands area may have been a contributing factor.

“We observed increased bird activity in the region,” said Will Gibson with Syncrude. “As a result of these observations, our bird deterrent system went into heightened alert.”

“The deterrent system was already deployed with noise-makers on every pond and our radar system was operational,” he said, adding more staff were sent out to monitor the birds around the operations.

“We can confirm that we’ve recovered 30 oiled waterfowl from our ponds in the past 24 hours,” said Gibson.

“We don’t want our operations to harm wildlife so we’re going to be reviewing our systems to see if there’s additional areas to improve on what we’ve already implemented.”

Syncrude, which operates one of the biggest oilsands sites north of Fort McMurray, was fined $3 million for the deaths of more than 1,600 ducks when they landed on its tailings pond in 2008.

Greenpeace Canada’s Mike Hudema says the province needs to get rid of tailings ponds altogether.

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“Industry has known for quite some time that these systems aren’t working, so birds continue to die in these tailings ponds, animals continue to die.”

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“The only way to keep birds and animals safe – in, really, what is a toxic brew of chemicals – is to get these tailings ponds off the Alberta landscape.

“That’s something Premier Stelmach promised to do and of course, we’ve seen absolutely no movement on it.”

“Albertans are getting very frustrated,” said NDP leader Rachel Notley. “They want to be proud of their province, but instead they’re frustrated with the government that – through their neglect – watches the problem grow.”

Hudema says the government needs to regulate the move to dry tailings.

“The government put a directive in place to try to slowly eliminate them from our landscape and not a single company is meeting that directive at all. We’ve seen no enforcement from the government.”

The regulator stresses it is investigating the incidents.

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“We’re there to ensure the companies are responding appropriately to the issue,” said Bartlett, “and to investigate what may have caused the incident, to make sure that their waterfowl deterrent systems were in place and were operational at the time.”

In a statement to Global News, CNRL said “multiple factors” led to the birds landing.

“During the early morning hours of Nov. 4, 2014, an unforeseen weather event of extreme fog conditions resulted in migratory waterfowl to land on the tailings pond despite the full operation of our waterfowl deterrent system.

Multiple factors contributed to the waterfowl landings that included the severe weather event, the timing of the waterfowl migration late in the season, and poor visibility.

Our waterfowl deterrents, including radar units, Long Range Acoustic Devices along with an array of propane cannons and effigies, were functional and effective, deterring many waterfowl from landing.

Unfortunately, we are saddened that approximately 60 waterfowl were not deterred and we are currently in the process of confirming the final affected number. The event was reported to Alberta Environment and Sustainable Development and the Alberta Energy Regulator on Nov. 4.”

“It does seem odd that it’s occurring all at the same time,” said Bartlett. “We’re investigating what the causes may have been.”

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Depending on the type of AER investigation, the process could take several months.

Environment Canada, Fish and Wildlife, and Environment and Sustainable Resources have all been notified.

Neither Alberta’s environment minister nor the energy minister would comment, saying the AER would take the lead. Premier Jim Prentice said he was disappointed, but said he’ll withhold judgement until the results of the AER investigation are released.

With files from The Canadian Press

*NOTE: This article was originally posted on Nov. 5, and was updated on Nov. 6 to include the confirmed number of bird deaths.

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