More migratory bird deaths in tar sands tailings ponds - yet another reason to say no to the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline

Yesterday, Greenpeace, NRDC and a total of 75 organizations sent a petition to the governments responsible for the tar sands strip-mines saying that it is high time that the toxic tailings ponds become a thing of the past. Already covering 65 square miles of what was once pristine Boreal forests and wetlands, the tar sands mine waste tailings ponds are growing every day. The problems of the tailings ponds are yet another reason that the United States should say no to the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline that would drive expansion of yet more tar sands strip-mines and their accompanying tailings waste ponds.

And what is the impetus for this latest outcry against tailings ponds? The past few months have seen a number of concerns raised about water pollution, leakage and downstream human and wildlife health. My colleague Elizabeth Shope has documented the recent scientific studies on water pollution from the tar sands and I have blogged before about the dangers of tailings ponds.

Yet last week, another flock of ducks met their doom shortly after landing on tar sands tailing ponds. The timing of this tragedy, involving about 350 birds, was particularly poignant since just three days earlier, oil sands producer Syncrude was fined $3 million CAD for a similar incident two years ago that killed approximately 1,600 migrating ducks. Missing the point, Syncrude blamed this latest incident on freezing rain. Just last August, environmental groups had challenged Alberta government approval of Syncrude’s plan for tailings pond management claiming that Syncrude was still not even meeting the government’s own requirements. At this point, it is clear that alongside Syncrude’s responsibility, the governments of Alberta and Canada are also responsible for allowing the existence and growth of these enormous dams of toxic sludge, despite the fact that they are prohibited by the laws that regulate protection of migratory birds and fisheries.

The tar sands tailings ponds are one of the most dangerous and absurd facets of this industry. Dangerous because tailings ponds are some of the largest dams in the world, constructed for the toxic waste that remains after strip-mining the tarry bitumen from the sand that lies deep under Alberta’s Boreal forests and wetlands. Absurd because the tar sands oil industry is wasting precious natural resources and migratory bird habitat for waste storage. Even the Canadian federal government does sometimes recognize the absurdity of turning its precious wilderness into toxic waste dumps. Earlier this month, Canada denied a permit for an open pit gold mine in British Columbia, in part because of the unacceptable and illegal environmental damage that would come from its tailings ponds. This needs to become consistent policy in Canada – resource extraction should not bring with it the right to poison the land in contravention of law, morality and good sense.

WWF-Canada just released a report on tailings ponds that calls them a “lasting legacy.” Surely this is not a legacy that any country would want to claim. A recent report on the Canadian Federal government’s responsibilities regarding the tar sands development by Pembina Institute, Environmental Defence Canada and Equiterre holds Canada accountable for their part in allowing the creation of the miles of tar sands tailings ponds.

Canada needs to stop approving tar sands strip-mines for all the problems that they cause, including their toxic legacy of tailings ponds. The next mine proposal moving through the process is by French company Total for the Joslyn tar sands mine. More than 30 groups, including NRDC, registered their opposition to this mine during the comment period in August of this year. The Joslyn mine would produce 3.3 billion gallons of toxic tailings waste each year, and over the project life it will create a volume large enough to fill more than 100 sports stadiums, without any proven plan to keep these toxic materials from entering the region’s lands and waters.

And in the meantime, the United States is considering whether to approve yet another tar sands pipeline that would bring the corrosive tar sands bitumen for upgrading and refining in U.S. Gulf Coast refineries. The U.S. State Department issued a completely inadequate draft environmental impact assessment of the pipeline during the summer. The State Department needs to go back to the drawing board and make sure that we have all the information on the table before a decision about the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is made. As requested by EPA and others, there needs to be a new draft environmental impact statement with a new public review period – to take a hard look at the many environmental costs of the project including the cost to the migratory birds that our two countries are legally bound to protect.

We are proud to join the Greenpeace petition. It is past time to stop the absurdity of using the Boreal forests and wetlands as a giant hazardous waste receptacle.