Impact on migratory birds of tailings ponds in Alberta’s oil sands mines

Petition: 395

Issue(s): Biological diversity, compliance and enforcement, governance, toxic substances

Petitioner(s): Canadian organization

Petitioner Location(s): Calgary, Alberta

Date Received: 7 October 2016

Status: Completed—Response(s) to petition received

Summary: The petition raises concerns about the impact on migratory birds of tailings ponds in Alberta’s oil sands mines. Tailings ponds are earthen structures that contain mining waste; tailings are a mixture of water, finely ground particles, contaminants, and oil sands by-products. In particular, the petition raises concerns about the impact during the spring and fall migratory seasons in northern Alberta. The petition also requests information about the enforcement of federal legislation that protects migratory birds and birds considered species at risk, specifically the Migratory Birds Convention Act, 1994 and the Species at Risk Act.

The petition refers to scientific studies that identify the impact on migratory birds of toxic substances within tailings ponds. Birds may land in tailings ponds thinking that they are natural bodies of water and, as a result, are exposed to many toxic substances, such as heavy metals and bitumen. These toxic substances may be responsible for killing thousands of birds a year. Even small amounts of bitumen can coat feathers, impeding flight, buoyancy, regulation of body temperature, and foraging. The petition suggests that migratory birds may transfer bitumen from their feathers to the surface of eggs in the nest, which in turn may affect embryo development.

The petition states that migratory birds, such as the endangered whooping crane, may land in ice-free tailings ponds rather than natural bodies of water that may still be frozen. The petition also raises concerns about the effect on migratory birds of intense storms, which force birds to land in tailings ponds rather than on natural bodies of water.

Finally, the petition questions the effectiveness of deterrent systems used by oil sands facilities to discourage birds from landing in tailings ponds. It asks how the federal government justifies not researching and monitoring the impact of tailings ponds on migratory birds.

Federal departments responsible for reply: Environment and Climate Change Canada