A Sad Mistake

They only made one mistake. After a winter spent perhaps in a wetland in
Texas or Florida or Missouri; after a journey of thousands of aching miles; after surviving thunderstorms and blazing sun and blinding snowstorms in their struggle to find the clear shrub-lined pond that they imagined raising their young.

After all that, 750 exhausted birds flying over northeastern Alberta finally spotted an unfrozen lake. Under better light they might have noticed the slight purple sheen on parts of it. But instead they saw a refuge that would give them at least a few hours of rest and maybe a chance for some replenishing food.

As they landed on the poison lake of oil and waste from Syncrude’s tar sands mining operation it may have only taken a few seconds for the birds to realize that something was not right. A few flew up quickly and continued north, their bodies stained with dark oily residue but 500 of them found themselves stuck in the oily lethal mire. They struggled, became coated further with oil, slowly sank further until they were gone.

Five hundred birds made one mistake and died last week on a single tailings pond in
Alberta’s tar sands.

What is especially troubling is that Syncrude was going to keep the deaths secret just as the fact that these tailings ponds and the others scattered through the Alberta tar sands have been killing birds for thirty years has been kept from the public. A whistleblower, apparently sickened by the sight, leaked the news and for the first time in thirty years the animals that died didn’t do so silently. You can read some of the news reports about the incident here and here.

Of course, the hundreds or thousands of birds killed every year at Alberta tar sands tailings ponds is just the tip of the iceberg of the impacts that the fast-paced development will have on birds. Hundreds of thousands of acres will be strip-mined and millions of acres criss-crossed with a spider’s web of pipelines and road. These changes will mean millions fewer birds—including birds like Canada Warbler which was just added to Canada’s list of threatened birds and Rusty Blackbird which has declined by more than 90% over the last 40 years.

How will we feel knowing that the gas in our car came from these same Alberta tar sands? How will we feel knowing that the oil traced the migratory routes of these same birds via pipelines extending from Chicago and Denver and Houston and Galveston to the Albert a tar sands?

At the very least we ought to know what the real trade-offs are. Oil companies and government should not hide the facts about the true costs of Alberta tar sands development. How many skeletons lie at the bottom of those oily lakes?

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