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Report: Tailings-pond breach would threaten huge area important to Whooping Cranes, waterfowl, other birds

The delta of the Mackenzie River in Canada’s Northwest Territories is marked by numerous small lakes. Photo by michael_swan (Creative Commons)

Birders and environmentalists have at least four significant concerns about the vast amounts of oil coming from Alberta’s Athabasca oil sands (or tar sands) region:

• Birds die in the tailings ponds that brim with a toxic soup of residual hydrocarbons, brine, silts, clays, and metals. A September 2010 report in The Wilson Journal of Ornithology put the toll in the range of 458 to 5,029 birds per year.

• As of 2008, more than 160,000 acres of boreal upland and riparian forests, water bodies, bogs, shrublands, and other habitats had been lost. A 2009 paper estimates that due to the destroyed habitat, the regional bird population has declined by 58,000 to 402,000 individual birds.

• The proposed Keystone XL pipeline and pipelines extending east and west of the oil sands pose a significant risk of spills. Just last week, British Columbia denied a new pipeline over such concerns, which seem justifiable given recent accidents in Michigan, Arkansas, and Wisconsin, and 37 years of spills in Alberta.

• The climate impact from the production of 1.7 million barrels of oil per day will only increase if Keystone XL is built. A report issued in April says the pipeline would be responsible for carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to the tailpipe releases of more than 37.7 million cars.


Now, we can add a fifth item to our list of worries:

The region’s 30,000 acres of tailings ponds put the Mackenzie River basin, which lies north of the oil sands and covers an area three times the size of France, at serious risk. A new report from nine Canadian, American, and Scottish scientists convened by the California-based Rosenberg International Forum on Water Policy says the largest single threat to the basin is a potential breach in the tailings ponds at one of the large oil sands sites mining surface bitumen. A breach in winter sending tailings liquid under the ice of the tributary Athabasca River, “would be virtually impossible to remediate or clean-up,” says the report.

The Mackenzie River basin, which includes several rivers and lakes, is shown in shades of blue and gray. Alberta’s oil-sands region is shown in red. The dotted line indicates the route of a proposed pipeline to the Beaufort Sea.

In 1982, the authors note, “a relatively modest spill at an oil sands site ended up in Lake Athabasca, causing the fishery to be closed for two years. A large spill, such as would occur in a major breach of a tailwater pond dike, could threaten the biological integrity of the lower Athabasca River, the Peace-Athabasca Delta, Lake Athabasca, the Slave River and Delta, Great Slave Lake, the Mackenzie River and Delta, and perhaps also the Beaufort Sea.”

The world’s only wild Whooping Cranes breed nearby in Wood Buffalo National Park. They are just the rarest of the species that rely on the Mackenzie River basin. The delta of the Peace and Athabasca Rivers is said to be “the most important waterfowl staging area in Canada.” And huge numbers of songbirds, waterfowl, shorebirds, raptors, and other birds breed throughout the basin every summer.

Several Important Bird Areas lie in the basin, including the Whooping Crane Nesting Area and Summer Range, Lower Mackenzie River Islands, Peace-Athabasca Delta, and Mackenzie River Delta.


The Boreal Songbird Initiative, noting the threats from a proposed pipeline through the basin, says a broad conservation strategy must be adopted in the region.

The authors of the Rosenberg report call for the establishment of a substantial fund from the region’s oil companies that would cover the costs of cleaning up a breached tailings pond. For more information on threats to the basin, including the effects of climate change, download the full report. — Matt Mendenhall, Managing Editor

Originally Published

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