Duck deaths far reaching, says scientist

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Oil has lasting effects, court hears

The death of 1,600 birds on Syncrude’s tailings pond would have had far-reaching implications for the region’s birds, says a scientist.

Regular testimony resumed at the St. Albert courthouse this week for the ongoing trial of Syncrude Canada. Most of last week was devoted to legal arguments about the admissibility of witness statements from Syncrude employees.

Syncrude has been charged under the provincial Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act and the federal Migratory Birds Convention Act in connection with the deaths of about 1,600 birds on the Aurora tailings pond in April 2008. If convicted on both counts, the company could be fined up to $800,000.

Greg Robertson, a research scientist with Environment Canada and an expert on the effects of oil on birds, said the tailings pond would have had short and long-term effects on migratory birds in the region. Any bird that landed in the bitumen would have had oil stick to their feathers, allowing water to make contact with their skin. As water absorbs heat about 20 times faster than air, these ducks would be very susceptible to hypothermia and death.

Research is less clear on how the oil would affect survivors. Studies of gulls exposed to oil from a 2002 oil spill near Spain found elevated levels of toxic polyaromatic hydrocarbons (chemicals found in oil) in their blood up to 17 months after the spill had been cleaned up. Birds affected by the Exxon Valdez spill still had reduced survival rates 10 years after the incident.

Birds that eat oil but live also seem to have reduced reproductive rates. “What appears to be a perfectly healthy bird is no longer reproducing,” Robertson said. Birds can be rescued from oil spills, but he was unaware of any case where a rescued bird had successfully reproduced upon its return to the wild.

It was “highly likely” that the death of 1,600 birds affected bird populations, Robertson said. “Those birds were about to breed,” he noted, so the pond would have indirectly killed their future offspring. These deaths would likely have affected hunting opportunities in North America the following season.

Syncrude’s tailings pond is located in a significant flyway for migratory birds, said Robert Clark, an avian ecologist with Environment Canada. The region around the pond is part of the boreal plain, a huge area recognized as the second-most important region on the continent for migratory birds. Companies have acknowledged for decades the need to keep birds away from their operations as a result.

Environment Canada researcher Mark Bidwell said his aerial surveys of the region found about 31 species of bird there, including geese, ducks, pelicans, grebes and shorebirds. “We detected large groups of birds moving through that area early in the season,” he said, some settling there while others moved north.

Syncrude testimony

This month will be the first time that the court hears testimony from Syncrude itself. Judge Ken Tjosvold is expected to rule the week after next on which of the 24 statements from Syncrude employees will be accepted as evidence. The crown will not call any Syncrude employees to testify if all those statements are accepted, said Susan McRory, the prosecutor representing the province in this case.

The trial resumes Tuesday, and is expected to last until at least the end of April.

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Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.