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Syncrude bird deaths bring up ‘serious concerns’ with regulatory policies: Alberta First Nation

WATCH ABOVE: An investigation is underway at a northern Alberta oilsands site after 30 blue herons were found dead earlier this week. On Sunday, an Alberta First Nation spoke out about the deaths.

EDMONTON — Members of northern Alberta First Nation say the deaths of 30 blue herons at an oilsands mine site near Fort McMurray earlier this week shows there are “serious deficiencies” in the regulatory policies.

“We’ve been notified that these birds did not land in a tailings pond but they were in an abandoned part of the site that had been utilized in the past, so it seems as though there may have been some sort of contaminant that they were exposed to in this area that’s abandoned,” said Eriel Deranger, executive assistant to Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam.

“It really draws up some serious concerns about how these areas are being managed and policed.”

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The Alberta Energy Regulator said Saturday one blue heron was found covered in oil Wednesday at the Syncrude Canada’s Mildred Lake oilsands mine site. It was alive, but had to be euthanized. Syncrude staff investigated the site further and found other dead birds. They were reported to the AER on Friday.

“They were close to a sump which is a low area where runoff fluids gather. And there was some bitumen there which impacted the one bird that they found this week and euthanized. The others were outside of that area so it’s unclear what the cause of death was,” Bob Curran, a spokesperson with the AER said Saturday.

READ MORE: 30 blue herons found dead at Alberta oilsands site

The bird deaths come less than one month after a massive pipeline leak was discovered in northern Alberta. The leak at Nexen’s Long Lake facility, which was discovered on July 15, spilled an estimated 5,000 cubic metres of emulsion – about 5 million litres of bitumen, sand and wastewater – over a 16,000-square-metre area about 36 kilometres southeast of Fort McMurray.

“This incident is on the heels of the largest oil spill in Canadian history and there have been numerous other incidents that are similar to these types of things, maybe not to this extent with the oil spill, but numerous incidents in the region that come from, sort of, this lagging environmental policing and regulatory policies of the region,” said Deranger.

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Deranger said while Alberta’s NDP government has made commitments to forge stronger relationships with First Nations and work with them on environmental issues, more needs to be done.

“What it really sort of highlights is the fact that there is a really strong lagging record of reclamation in the region that’s leaving all these large areas of land sort of open and contaminated in various levels and various stages,” she said. “The government needs to really start amping up the game and really focusing on prioritizing reclamation.

“We really hope that the new government stays true to their commitments on improving environmental standards and stewardship and relations with First Nations, because they’re really one in the same thing.”

Syncrude said Fish and Wildlife was immediately notified when the first bird was found Wednesday and it is conducting its own investigation.

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.

In November 2014, about 30 birds died after landing on a tailings pond at Syncrude’s Mildred Lake facility. In total, 122 waterfowl died after landing on three sites, including the CNRL Horizon facility and Suncor Energy’s tailings pond.