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Animal deaths in oilsands targeted

In this photo taken from shore, a duck is coated with bitumen from an oilsands tailing pond. Documents newly released by the government show that in the oilsands area between 2000 and 2008, 27 black bears, 67 deer, 31 red foxes and 21 coyotes were killed, along with moose, muskrats, beavers, voles, martens. Photograph by: Todd Powell, supplied,

Province vows to ease effects of development

By Jamie Komarnicki, Calgary HeraldApril 9, 2010 2:22 PM

The Stelmach government is vowing to minimize animal deaths at oilsands operations, as documents show a variety of wildlife — including dozens of black bears, deer and red foxes — were killed in Alberta oilpatch developments.

The data, released through a Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy request by Edmonton-area ecologist Kevin Timoney, examines three oilpatch giants over an eight-year period.

At least 164 animals were killed in the Syncrude, Suncor and Shell Canada’s Albian Sands, according to information given to Alberta Sustainable Resource Development.

The information doesn’t include specific causes of death, though it listed possible reasons, including euthanasia of problem wildlife, drowning or oiling from tailings, vehicle crashes and electrocution.

“There is always some impact. We work to try and mitigate it,” Sustainable Resources Minister Mel Knight said in an interview Thursday.

“I don’t think what we see here with wildlife numbers in the oilsands is anything that stands out or (is) a number that is much greater than other numbers you would see in any rural community in the province,” Knight added.

Industry representatives and an Alberta Environment spokesman say oil and gas companies work hard to try to prevent animal deaths, pointing to the “wildlife mitigation strategies” tailored to each specifi c oilsands development as part of the process of gaining an operating approval.

But the news of the animal deaths, which comes as scrutiny of the oilsands is particularly intense, amounts to a “kind of public relations hell,” says a Calgary analyst.

Oilsands giant Syncrude is on trial, charged by both the federal and provincial governments with failing to prevent waterfowl from landing on a tailing pond. The province’s oil and gas leaders, meanwhile, unrolled a major publicity blitz this week to ward off negative perceptions about the industry.

“From a public relations perspective, this is really bad news for the oil companies,” said University of Calgary political analyst David Taras.

“Just as they’re getting started with their PR campaign, there are stories coming to light that undo the image they’re trying to create.”

With reports of an array of animals dying in oilpatch incidents, the negative perceptions that tend to linger around Alberta’s major industrial sector become more “deeply implanted in the public’s imagination, in the public’s psyche and in the international psyche,” Taras said.

“You end up playing from behind, playing defence.”

Timoney wasn’t available for an interview on Thursday.

The documents he obtained show 27 black bears, 31 foxes, 21 coyotes and dozens of deer were killed, along with moose, muskrats, beavers, voles, martens, wolves and bats.

Environmental critics, however, peg the number of animals that die in oilsandsrelated incidents much higher. The 164 animals killed detail the operations of just three oilsands companies, noted Mike Hudema of Greenpeace.

Further, the figures are based on only the deaths observed by workers, who must then forward the information to the company to be reported to government.

“These numbers aren’t based on a widespread scientific study or any research done in a methodical way,” Hudema said. “The true death toll is definitely much higher.”

The “self-policing” system that allows industry to report on itself is flawed, Hudema said.

The Stelmach government should focus on beefing up its environmental enforcement and monitoring budget rather than putting cash into public relations campaigns, he said.

Travis Davies, spokesman for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, which is leading a coalition to promote the importance of the sector in Alberta, said workers in the field are “extremely responsible” about reporting animal deaths.

“Even with very high degrees of effort and as with any area where there’s a human population or activity, there will be some impact on animal population, whether from vehicles or structures or people themselves,” said Davies.

“Companies try their level best to avoid any negative impact on animal populations,” he said, pointing to fencing, safety protocols on driving and technology on tailings ponds.

Many companies go “well above” regulations with their efforts, according to Davies.

A number of measures are in place to try to prevent animals from dying on oilsands property, noted Cheryl Robb of Syncrude.

Landfills are regularly covered with dirt, noise cannons are used to scare away wildlife from tailings ponds, and programs teach employees what do when they cross paths with animals.

In many cases, wildlife are killed because of highway collisions, much like elsewhere in the province, Robb noted, and there have also been cases where the deaths are due to natural causes and predators.

Syncrude reports monthly to the local Sustainable Resources Department office, Robb said.

“We follow all the government regulations. The policy is, if they find dead wildlife on our site, they work with our environmental affairs team and we report,” she said.

“As a company, we take the biodiversity as part of our planning very seriously,” said Shell spokesman Ed Greenberg.

According to Knight, there is room for improvement in preventing animal deaths. But on the whole, oilpatch operators do a good job monitoring and reporting, the minister said.

Alberta Liberal environment critic Laurie Blakeman said the government isn’t doing its job to prevent animal deaths.

“It’s about having the rules in place for people to follow, and are they monitoring to make sure (there is) compliance, and then enforcing,” she said, noting that the Stelmach has fewer enforcement officers on the ground due to budget cuts.

But Knight said the government has “increased efficiency” by as much as 30 per cent by making better use of resources in areas such as mobile office technology.


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