The real deal on the dead ducks

Blog - Oct. 27, 2010 - By Jennifer Grant

Did freezing rain cause the ducks to make an emergency landing? Were the deterrents to discourage them from landing on the tailings lakes malfunctioning? Why did the ducks land on not one, not two, but three different toxic lakes? As journalists work to unravel the story of the latest dead ducks incident in the oilsands, one thing becomes increasingly clear: the risks posed by 170 square kilometres of toxic lakes are unmanageable.

In a strange instance of irony and gloomy happenstance, this latest incident happened mere days after Syncrude was handed a fine of $3 million for the death of 1,600 ducks on one of its tailings lakes in April 2008. Dishing out the fine as a creative sentence, federal and provincial government representatives patted themselves on the backs for enforcing their own laws. But the reality is that the latest rules to reduce toxic tailings are not even being enforced — which means these dangerous lakes are being allowed to continue to expand.

Struggling duckWe'd understand if you were confused about what's happening with tailings, because while Alberta's premier is talking tough about eliminating tailings lakes, the province continues to accept a number of tailings plans that do not meet the new tailings rules. On one hand, Syncrude is being fined for failing to keep ducks off its ponds, but on the other, the company is getting a free pass to delay future tailings cleanup.

As a result, our cautiously hopeful expectations about the new tailings rules — branded as an enforceable, tougher approach to regulating oilsands development — have been significantly lowered. Most recently, spokespeople for the Energy Resources Conservation Board commented that they would now be open to taking a "collaborative" approach with industry, suggesting that it's "reasonable" to give companies who aren't meeting the regulations some flexibility.

Unfortunately, as this past week's events have clearly shown, we can't rely on provincial and federal laws or the new regulations to prevent tailings lakes from posing a lethal danger to birds — let alone seeping waste and posing long-term reclamation risks.

The only surefire solution to dealing with the tailings issue is to prohibit the production of new tailings waste altogether, while cleaning up the old. Premier Ed Stelmach has the right idea about eliminating tailings ponds — we urge him to back up his statements with non-negotiable, enforceable and binding rules.

Jennifer Grant
Jennifer Grant

Jennifer Grant was the Pembina Institute's associate regional director for Alberta and the North until 2013, and former director of the Institute's oilsands program.


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