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‘Transparency is critical’: buried report raises questions about oilsands bird monitoring program

A previously undisclosed expert analysis, obtained through a freedom of information request, details how Alberta’s efforts to prevent waterfowl from landing on tailings ponds ‘maximizes the appearance of bird protection while appearing to impede actual bird protection’

A lack of transparency, inadequate testing of bird protection systems and insufficient regulatory oversight characterize Alberta’s system of safe-guarding birds from perishing in oilsands tailings ponds, according to a previously unreleased internal report prepared for the Alberta Energy Regulator.

The comprehensive report, obtained by The Narwhal through a freedom of information request, found regulatory approaches have resulted in “a situation that maximizes the appearance of bird protection while appearing to impede actual bird protection.”

The challenge, it said, is “an emphasis on the appearance of sophisticated bird protection over data that demonstrate it.”

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Alberta’s more than 200 square kilometres of tailings ponds are situated under a major migratory flyway that sees over a million birds pass over each spring and fall. According to the report, tens of thousands of birds land on the tailings ponds every year and about one per cent die. Hundreds more fly away covered in oil, their ultimate fates unknown.

In 2015, Colleen Cassady St. Clair, a professor of biology at the University of Alberta and a longtime leader in research on bird landings on oilsands tailings ponds, was commissioned by the regulator to analyze the province’s bird protection plans. The resulting report, submitted in 2016, was never released to the public. 

“I couldn’t share it with anybody. And that came as a real surprise to me,” St. Clair told The Narwhal. “I couldn’t share it with people working on bird protection.”

For St. Clair, whose work has always been for the public, that was a blow. Even when the report was relevant to, say, new oilsands developments, she wasn’t authorized to share it.

The regulator’s freedom of information office initially refused to release the report to The Narwhal, saying St. Clair was contracted “for the purpose of assisting a public body dealing with an issue or problem, or to establish a policy, or to make a decision” and it was therefore withholding the document from the public. Following a review by the province’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, the regulator was ultimately required to release the report.

In an interview, St. Clair told The Narwhal she has not been told of any substantial changes to the province’s bird protection system since the report was published and has lingering concerns about transparency in particular.

tailings pond from above in flat landscape

According to a 2016 report commissioned by the Alberta Energy Regulator, tens of thousands of birds land on tailings ponds in Alberta every year and about one per cent die. It is unknown what happens to the hundreds more that fly away covered in oil. Photo: Jiri Rezac / Greenpeace

A spokesperson for the regulator told The Narwhal some changes have been made, but they were not a result of the report.

“I have no way of knowing whether my recommendations were adopted, but I hope they were,” St. Clair told The Narwhal. “I still believe industry, government and others could work together to make bird protection by this industry something we’re all proud of.”

Humans kill birds in many ways, she notes, and the industry is one contributor. “There’s no need for all this secrecy,” she said. “It should be possible to just be plainer about this.”

“Birds die in tailings ponds. … It’s inevitable, let’s move beyond that,” she said. “How can we minimize it?”

The Narwhal asked Lorne Gould, a wildlife biologist who works in the oilsands, to review the previously unreleased document. 

“It was very, very important work,” he said.

“When you don’t have access to documents like [this report], it really, really cuts down on the critical discussions that need to be had,” he added, noting a variety of experts are committed to reducing bird mortality in the oilsands and need access to all information to move the industry forward.

“Transparency is critical,” he said.

‘Manifestly impossible’ to prevent birds from dying in tailings ponds

Birds dying at tailings ponds received international attention in 2008, when 1,600 ducks landed on a tailings pond at Syncrude and ultimately perished.

More recently, 31 great blue herons died after landing on a sump pond at Syncrude in 2015.

Both incidents resulted in charges and millions of dollars in fines.

And earlier this year, just as the Alberta Energy Regulator temporarily suspended much environmental monitoring at the oilsands, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, dozens of grebes and shorebirds died after landing on an Imperial Oil tailings pond.

“Birds land on tailings ponds all the time,” Gould, the biologist, explained to The Narwhal. “The deterrent systems in place are not 100 per cent effective. There are birds that die every year. And that’s just a fact.”

Birds that land on tailings ponds may fly away and still face major challenges, according to Gould. They may ingest light oil while preening, causing internal health issues. They may also incubate eggs, coating them in oil and causing issues for offspring. Or a light coating of oil might make swimming difficult or impossible, Gould explained. 

Oil can make birds’ feathers less waterproof, he said. “The water can penetrate that envelope of feathers around them and they begin to lose their buoyancy, and then they sink,” he explained.

Gould, who previously worked at a wildlife rehabilitation centre, has first-hand experience trying to rescue oiled birds. “You wash them and they look clean,” he said. “Then you put them in a pond to see if they can swim. And they sink.”

Companies attempt to prevent birds from landing on tailings ponds by using deterrents such as scarecrows, sound cannons and electronic speakers triggered by long-range radar. According to the report, changes to these systems have at times lacked scientific scrutiny and may have had “unintended detrimental effects.” Photo: Julia Kilpatrick / Pembina Institute

The report asserted it is “manifestly impossible” to prevent birds from landing on tailings ponds or their shores. It also suggested changes to deterrent systems were adopted without adequate evidence or evaluation of their effectiveness. These changes included the use of marine-style radar and electronic noise-makers to replace cannons, which may have led to “unintended detrimental effects.”

The report explained the use of long-distance radar to trigger electronic speakers may lead to noise habituation. The long ranges of radar mean birds flying high above may trigger extremely loud noises at ground level. Local birds may quickly become acclimatized to frequent bangs, reducing effectiveness, while songbirds in particular are very sensitive to loud sounds.

“Recent changes in bird protection systems have received no rigorous testing,” the report concluded, adding, some “monitoring data suggest they may be less effective than the deterrent types and configurations they replaced.”

Other research has suggested that some auditory bird deterrent systems, like types of electronic speakers, are only effective for some species, while others may ignore the sounds.

This led St. Clair to the conclusion that preventing all bird deaths in the oilsands — a goal the report asserted is frequently noted by industry —  is unrealistic and unachievable.

The report asserted companies could deploy their resources more effectively if goals were more realistic. The report stated its goal as “reconciling expectation with reality” when it comes to bird death prevention.

Colleen Cassady St. Clair posing in the woods

Colleen Cassady St. Clair, a professor of biology at the University of Alberta, was commissioned in 2015 by the Alberta Energy Regulator to analyze the province’s bird protection plans. Her report was never released to the public, much to her surprise. Photo: The University of Alberta

In an emailed statement to The Narwhal, the regulator said “operators in Alberta’s oilsands continue to develop and invest in new technologies to improve bird detection systems. While no technology or system is perfect, operators continue to advance these technologies and adopt best practices to improve the effectiveness of their bird detection systems.”

The regulator said it is “adopting a continuous improvement approach for enhancing bird protection systems” and concluded “the industry continues to do meaningful work to ensure that birds and other wildlife are protected from tailings ponds.” 

It also said it had made changes to some of its protocols and requirements for bird monitoring, though it did not specify when any changes were made.

It added that “changes were made independently of the 2016 bird protection report,” but that “several of them align with the report’s recommendations.”

Report calls data accuracy and transparency into question

Until 2015, companies were required to monitor and report bird landings and deaths as part of the Oil Sands Bird Contact Monitoring Program, which was collaboratively run by industry, government and academia. Bird monitoring is now overseen by the regulator, and companies are required to monitor and report bird data as part of their approvals to operate. 

The report found some companies have been dishonest when reporting on the scope of bird landings and deaths. 

Company press statements have been at times “grossly misleading, if not willfully deceitful in relation to the available evidence about both landings and mortalities,” the report said. 

It also noted some public statements from companies have included a “persistent lack of realism, openness and honesty in public claims about monitoring results or, more specifically, in the number of birds that are portrayed to land or die on the industry’s [tailings ponds].”

The most recent report available on bird landings in Alberta from 2015 reveals 158 birds were known to have died that year from landing on tailings ponds. Photo: Todd Powell / Alberta Fish and Wildlife

Even when bird landings are recorded accurately, little is known about birds that are able to fly away after landing in tailings ponds.

St. Clair’s report referred to the lack of data on what happens to birds that are able to fly away as “knowledge gaps,” noting that of the hundreds of birds covered in oil, some “were released or flew away, but their ultimate fates are unknown.” 

The report included data from the 2014 bird monitoring seasons, in which 485 birds were found to be covered in oil. 

The report criticized the bird monitoring program for its lack of transparency. “Five months and multiple escalating requests were required to obtain these data, which contrasts poorly not only with the history of this program, but also with the extensive public relations claims by both federal and provincial governments about the openness and transparency of monitoring the environmental impacts of the industry,” it said.

The most recent report on bird landings now available on the Alberta government website is from 2015.

In that year, more than 20,000 birds were seen landing on tailings ponds — more than 2,000 of which were species of conservation concern — and 518 “oiled birds” were observed. Of those, 158 are known to have died.

Alberta Environment and Parks did not respond to The Narwhal’s request for updated data from 2016 onward. 

The Narwhal asked the Alberta Energy Regulator if recent data was available. A spokesperson confirmed it did have data from recent years, but said it could only be accessed for a $30 fee. It is not publicly posted on the regulator’s website.

“Certainly, there’s no transparency,” St. Clair said. “I just couldn’t find any evidence that [the data] is public anywhere.”

Heron deaths may have been preventable

The report also questioned whether the differences in risk between individual tailings ponds have been adequately evaluated. 

Different tailings ponds have various levels of toxicity, and the report suggested the goal of attempting to prevent all birds from landing on all tailings ponds may be a misallocation of companies’ resources. Instead, it pointed out birds are far more likely to die when coming in contact with bitumen than other more diluted substances, thus making some ponds more dangerous than others.

The report found there had been an “incomplete inventory of [tailings] ponds and a [lack of] consistent, evidence-based and transparent evaluation of their characteristics and associated risks to birds.”

The report is critical of both the regulator and companies for a lack of transparent and accurate reporting in tailings ponds, noting an improved approach would have led to a better inventory of risks and “might have prevented or lessened the mortality of over 30 great blue herons that were discovered [at an abandoned sump pond] in the summer of 2015.”

The regulator told The Narwhal it is now “standardizing risk assessments that operators are required to conduct on their [industrial wastewater ponds] that can be hazardous to birds and other wildlife,” but did not provide specifics.

Changes ‘require leadership’ from Alberta Energy Regulator: report

The report is critical of the regulatory system overall, noting “there is a persistent lack of regulatory oversight, independent science capacity and explicit requirements by government.”

The report found regulatory oversight was lacking when it came to overseeing the accuracy of monitoring of landings and deaths, verifying the independence of companies contracted to do much of the bird monitoring across the oilsands and ensuring there are complete inventories of tailings ponds.

Alex McLean Oilsands Overview of tailings pond at Suncor mining site

The report concludes there is a lack of regulatory oversight at oilsands operations and puts the onus on the Alberta Energy Regulator to initiate reforms. Photo: Alex MacLean

The report further concluded the government has failed to provide clear and explicit requirements through regulation.

Though the report outlined the failure of the province to achieve a bird monitoring program that is any “more than the scattered sum of its haphazard parts,” the report ultimately suggested “changes will require proactive and explicit leadership by the Alberta Energy Regulator.”

The Alberta Energy Regulator told The Narwhal by email it “determined that the research needed further exploration to support the report’s conclusions” and “never considered the report complete.”

St. Clair told The Narwhal she was never asked for any additional information to finalize the report and she regrets that the regulator declined to allow the report to be circulated for discussion among those working on these issues.

“This was my most synthetic and forward-looking work on this topic and I believed it supported social and economic, as well as environmental, interests. It would have been great to have an open and honest discussion about my recommendations and to have known what others thought about them,” she said.

Report was a ‘roadmap’ for improvements

For St. Clair, the reluctance to publicize the report was a loss, as she had hoped it would continue an important conversation about the impacts of oilsands development. 

“All of society, not just industry and regulators, needs to realize that our human activities cause other animals to die, and then enter a more sophisticated discussion about how — as well as when and where — that should be minimized, without pretending it can be avoided completely,” she told The Narwhal.

St. Clair added that a number of people have requested access to the report — including environmental organizations and consultants working on bird protection — but the regulator did not allow her to share it with anyone.

Gould is disappointed the regulator did not make the report public.

“A lot of us all work together to try and make the oilsands a better place,” he said. “And when you don’t have access to documents like that, it really, really cuts down the critical discussions that need to be had.”

The report, he added, “gives a roadmap of where I think things need to go with regards to the protection of waterbirds from tailings ponds.”

In the end, he said, “it comes down to the regulator.”

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Sharon is an award-winning journalist based in Edmonton. Her writing has also been published by The Walrus, Harper’s, The Tyee…

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