The Deathtraps of Unmonitored Oil sand Tailing Ponds to Wildlife

by Lucas Salameh on October 4, 2017 - 7:47pm

Often, there are many processes that go into things like oil extraction and refining in order to keep it as sustainable as possible and to minimize its impact on other components around it. However, equally as often those efforts fall short as managers don’t take into account big picture interactions and effects. In the case of Syncrude, a massive producer of Canada’s oil from the Alberta oil sands, it has been found that 31 blue herons have died as a result of unmonitored runoff “tailing” ponds. Tailing ponds are simply catchment areas of production runoff containing a mixture of acids, benzene, bitumen, water, and other compounds, all of which are very lethal to the wildlife who may land in it. Syncrude has failed to create an inventory of these ponds that they are responsible for which creates a massive liability. As a result, the Alberta Energy Regulator has charged Syncrude with the death of these birds. Although there were deterrent systems for wildlife, Will Gibson, Syncrude spokesman, said they were not operational at the time. This led to Syncrude receiving a $500 000 fine charged under the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act. Will Gibson states that after this event they will be increasing their deterrent methods at all bodies of water on their facilities.

I feel as though the reaction to this issue was swift with its charges. However, I feel like there is a lot of problems with a lot of different variables going into the management. For one, Syncrude made two mistakes, not having inventory on every pond or dangerous body of water on their site, and for not having their deterrent equipment fully operational. The charge is hefty but this seems to violate many basic precautionary mitigative protection laws. This was simple negligence combined with ill-practice. I also believe that these charges don’t fully address the main issue. It says that Syncrude’s deterrent systems were simple things like strobe lights, air cannons that fired off every few minutes, among other rudimentary systems. These systems are a bare minimum barrier against this wildlife. In the past, Syncrude has also been charged with similar cases of wildlife damage when around 1600 ducks (2008), 550 birds (2010) and another 122 birds (2015) were killed as a result of landing in their tailing ponds. Clearly their methods are flawed, and it is only now, when the reputation and impact is putting pressure on the industry itself that changes are being made. It is not a matter of uncertainty, it is a matter or priority, and Syncrude’s priority is just that of an industry, and threats of that industry are what give incentive for change. 

Although Syncrude has addressed the issue of deterrent systems, they have yet to comment on improving their monitoring and inventory systems of the ponds and other potentially harmful bodies of water. I feel again, this is an example of bare minimum resolution to a serious problem. Interest and value are certainly on profit and progression of the industry. Syncrudes management reactions to these charges are nothing more than PR and damage control. This may be reason to increase the fines placed on offenses like this, especially when it is a four time repeated offence within ten years at this scale. 


You can find the most recent article on this at this link:

Other past articles addressing earlier stages of this issue can be found here: