Alberta researcher offers unique perspective on tailings ponds

Watch above: Last week, the spotlight was once again on the province’s tailings ponds after 122 birds died. But, what’s the scope of the problem? A U of A prof offers a unique perspective. Vinesh Pratap reports. 

EDMONTON – A University of Alberta researcher believes tailings ponds are not having a major impact on the local bird population.

Colleen Cassady St. Clair is behind the ‘Research on Avian Protection Project’.

The study was put together in 2010 as part of a sentence imposed on Syncrude related to the deaths of ducks on its tailings pond.

St. Clair says as many as 200,000 birds land on Alberta tailings ponds each year, but the researcher estimates only 100 to 200 die. She believes the best deterrent systems are the bird’s own instincts.

“That ratio – less than one percent – it has to mean that the birds themselves are able to see bitumen, under most circumstances and they just avoid landing in it,” St. Clair explains.

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“It is not any kind of problem. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a social issue to solve.”

But others believe it’s a problem. Last week, about 100 waterfowl were killed, raising the call to do something about tailings ponds.

“Yes, we’ve seen goodwill from companies, but they have no regulations that’s driving that innovation. They’re just doing it on good faith. And so, we need the government to be an honest broker here,” says Erin Flanagan, Pembina Institute.

The Pembina Institute attempts to reduce the environmental impacts of energy production.

One analyst says the tailings pond issue also has to take into account greenhouse gas emissions and possible leakage.

Erin Flanagan believes Canadians want to see the oil sands developed in a responsible way.

“That means understanding what the ecosystem can handle, understanding what bird systems can handle… understanding the impacts of climate change and bringing in a level of development that’s consistent with those things.”

St. Clair believes more can be done for the birds.

“Maybe try to corral that bitumen with booms. Maybe try to set out areas within the region, within big ponds that do not have bitumen, that the birds are allowed to land in.”

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St. Clair believes it’s important to let go of what she describes as “grand statements” and focus on best practices.

There are more than 60 tailings ponds in Alberta.

With files from Vinesh Pratap

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