Skip to content

Syncrude birds unrecognizable from oil

The oil covering the birds from the Syncrude pond was so thick that scientists had trouble identifying them, a local court heard this week. The Syncrude dead bird trial rolled into its second month this week with more expert testimony.

The oil covering the birds from the Syncrude pond was so thick that scientists had trouble identifying them, a local court heard this week.

The Syncrude dead bird trial rolled into its second month this week with more expert testimony. The oilsands company stands charged under provincial and federal law in connection with the death of about 1,600 birds on its Aurora tailings pond on April 28, 2008. If convicted on both counts, it could be fined up to $800,000.

Deib Birkholz, an analytical chemist with ALS Laboratories, told St. Albert Provincial Court Tuesday of his work analyzing the oil on some of the dead birds recovered from the tailings pond. Using graphs from a mass spectrometer, he showed how the oil on the birds matched the molecular contents of the oil recovered from the pond and closely resembled bitumen.

"We come to the conclusion that the oil on the birds was in fact heavy oil," Birkholz said, testifying in court. "The large amount of oil found on the birds likely contributed to the demise of the birds."

Blackened birds

Birkholz gave a detailed presentation of his findings, describing the nature of his lab's tests and the results.

The lab received a duck, a Canada goose, a mallard, and a goldeneye from investigators, as well as several jars of bitumen collected from the pond. Pictures showed how each bird was wrapped in tin foil and a plastic bag, and was typically black with oil. One bird (the unidentified duck) had so much oil on it that they had to partially clean it to figure out that it was actually a duck.

Samples of the oil from the birds were run through a mass spectrometer to determine their contents. "The profile we have from the tailings pond is very similar to the profile of the oil on the goose … and the duck," he said, referring to three similarly shaped line graphs. "Like a fingerprint, we're getting a very reasonable match."

“Upset” at pond

Richard Houlihan spoke on the nature of the bitumen in the tailings pond.

The ponds themselves are a mix of water, softening agents and unprocessed oilsands, said Houlihan, an engineer who headed the Energy Resource Conservation Board oilsands branch in Fort McMurray. Unclaimed bitumen floats to the top, while sand and fine clays settle to the bottom over the decades.

Syncrude typically recovers 88 to 95 per cent of the bitumen from the oilsands, Houlihan said, with the rest ending up in the tailings ponds. This dropped to about 65 per cent on April 12 for unknown reasons, which would have meant more bitumen than normal was going into the ponds. The drop suggests that a "pretty bad upset" of some sort happened at the time, he said, but it didn't last — recovery rates returned to normal by April 28.

Defence counsel Robert White noted that, in an email exchange on the bird deaths between Syncrude and the ERCB, an ERCB official noted that there was "no smoking gun here," implying that the change in recovery rate was not linked to the deaths of the birds.

Judge Ken Tjosvold is expected to make a ruling on a number of statements from Syncrude employees when the case resumes Monday. Lawyers on both sides of the case have been arguing over their admissibility for weeks.

More than just ducks

Syncrude's oilsands plant has killed bears, deer, and foxes as well as birds, according to Greenpeace.

The eco-activist group released this week the results of a Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIPP) request made to the province on the oilsands. The request, made by scientist Kevin Timoney, asked for industry-reported records of animals on the Syncrude, Suncor and Albian Sands oilsands operations from 2000 to 2008.

Some 164 non-avian animals died on the sites during that time, Timoney found, including deer, red foxes, black bears, muskrats, coyotes, moose, martens and bats. Forty-three of the reported deaths happened on the Syncrude site; one, a deer, died in the same month that 1,600 birds landed on the Aurora tailings pond. The deaths were attributed to euthanasia (in case of problem wildlife), collisions, electrocution, and drowning/oiling in tailings ponds.

Provincial Crown prosecutor Susan McRory has made reference to these deaths in the Syncrude trial, noting that, in addition to ducks, other animals such as snowy owls have died as a result of exposure to the tailings ponds.

This report demonstrates how the oilsands are harming more than just birds, said Mike Hudema, spokesperson for Greenpeace. "Even if the Syncrude trial wraps up, there's much more these corporations should be held accountable for."

Kevin Ma

About the Author: 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.
Read more


push icon
Be the first to read breaking stories. Enable push notifications on your device. Disable anytime.
No thanks