Syncrude Canada Ltd, formed as a joint venture, is currently one of the earliest and largest producers of crude oil from Canada's oil sands. The consortium was initially formed in 1964 to mine oil from the Athabasca oil sands. It operates a large oil sand mine, utilities plant, bitumen extraction plant and upgrading facility that processes bitumen and produces value-added light, sweet crude oil for domestic consumption and export. Syncrude's production accounts for about 15% of Canada's consumption.
In July 2000, Syncrude started depositing tailings in the Aurora Settling Basin located around 75 kilometers north of Fort MacMurray, Alberta. This pond occupies a huge area of about 640 football fields. Transported through pipes from the extraction plant to the pond, the tailings, formed mainly by water, sand and bitumen, are left in the pond until reclamation. When masses of bitumen accumulate on the surface of the pond, they form a tar--a thick, cohesive and viscous bitumen.
The Aurora tailings pond did not receive environmental approval until June 2007. According to the approval, that same year Syncrude submitted its first Waterfowl Protection Plan for the Aurora mine, undertaking to monitor and deter access of wildlife (especially birds) from the tailings pond. The Plan proposed using an eight-person Bird and Environmental Team (BET) to provide full coverage, as well as 67 scare cannons, 27 effigies, 17 rafts and 13 boats.
The Athabasca river region and the Aurora Settling Basin tailings pond are on an important route for migratory birds during breeding season. Migratory birds are prone to mistaking tailing ponds as natural bodies of water. Most species of waterfowl depend on water for rest and foraging stopovers, and are attracted to open waters because the vegetation around them acts as a breeding ground.
Since the 1970s, major oil sands operators, including Syncrude, have invested heavily in research, protocols, and equipment to discourage birds from landing in or near the toxic water. They face marked challenges to bird deterrence due to various factors such as the high volume of migratory birds passing through the region, and the fact that tailings ponds tend to thaw early, causing the artificial ponds to become preferential landing sites during the early spring break up in April and May. At that time, the migration of birds is at its peak and the unfrozen natural water body makes tailings ponds the only open sources available for...