It's Not Just About 500 Dead Ducks

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The fate of the 500 ducks is symbolic of much deeper problems when it comes to the environmental consequences of Canada’s largest industrial project

by Gillian Steward

Toronto Star, May 11, 2008

Who could have known that a flock of ducks on its way home for the summer was fated to become a powerful symbol of all that is wrong with Alberta’s most vital industrial project – the tar sands?

As much of the world knows by now, about 500 of them died when they set down on a lake of oily goo, usually referred to by the petroleum industry and the government as a tailing pond – a much more neutral phrase than 22 square kilometres of toxic sludge produced when oil is extracted from the sandy soil.

And that’s just one tailing pond. There are almost a dozen and they cover about 55 square kilometres. Within 10 years, when all the planned tar sands projects are up and running, they will cover three times that area.

At about the same time the ducks were dying, Alberta Deputy Premier Ron Stevens was winging his way home from a trip to Washington where he went to great pains to convince U.S. politicians that oil extracted from the sands is not “dirty.”

That’s how it’s being described stateside by those alarmed about the environmental impact of these massive projects. This matters a lot to the powers that be in Alberta because if enough Americans think our oil is dirty, they may stop importing it. Thanks to the unfortunate ducks, Stevens was left with a lot more than egg on his face.

It’s a story line that could have come out of a Robert Redford movie: Eager Canadian politician goes to Washington to spin a story about his government’s strict environmental policies; as the senators and members of Congress consider what he has to say, photos of ducks drowning in poisonous muck pop up on CNN and the Internet.

The tailing pond belongs to Syncrude – a joint venture of Imperial Oil, Petro-Canada and others, and the world’s largest tar sands operation. The poisonous pond was built in 1973 and, according to Syncrude, the ducks died because a system of small cannons designed to issue warning shots was not running due to recent snowstorms.

This sounds like a reasonable explanation until one asks why on earth hugely profitable corporations and a wealthy provincial government couldn’t come up with something better than a contraption that is no more than a complex scarecrow. And that begets an even bigger question: Why have these toxic lakes been allowed to fester for so long?

They line both sides of the Athabasca River, which flows into the Mackenzie Basin. Many are already leaking and creating their own tainted wetlands. Minnows dropped into the ponds die within 96 hours. Residents of Fort Chipewyan, which lies downstream from the tar sands projects, have long complained about the weird-looking fish they pull out of the water and the high incidence of certain cancers in their community.

Talk about canaries in a coal mine. The fate of the 500 ducks is symbolic of much deeper problems when it comes to the environmental consequences of Canada’s largest industrial project.

Unfortunately, most of the CEOs and politicians, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper who called the death of the ducks a “tragedy,” seem more concerned about polishing up their tarnished reputations than actually doing anything to lessen or limit the environmental quagmire that caused the deaths of the hapless ducks in the first place.

Premier Ed Stelmach has called for an investigation. But don’t hold your breath – it will likely focus on why the scarecrow didn’t work rather than what lies beneath it.