Thursday, September 23, 2010

Tailing Ponds in Athabasca Tar Sands Effect Bird Mortalities

On September 7, 2010, Bob Weber published an article to the Toronto Star entitled “Birds dying in oilsands at 30 times the rate reported, says study” (Weber 2010). Weber’s article informs the reader about avian deaths caused by bitumen mining tailing ponds in the Athabasca tar sands, based on the findings from “Annual Bird Mortality in the Bitumen Tailing Ponds in Northeastern Alberta, Canada”, a study published in The Wilson Journal of Ornithology by Kevin Timoney and Robert Ronconi. Weber gives an accurate summary of the original article, though there are some discrepancies between the newspaper article and the published story.

In his article, Weber states that the fourteen year median for avian deaths related to tailing ponds is 1973 deaths per year. Although his article suggests that these data come from the published study, the study does not actually mention this number. Rather, the study used observed rates of landing and oiling to estimate the number of avian deaths per year (Timoney and Roncini 2010). Moreover, to have a fourteen year median you need fourteen years of data on the number of birds

affected by the Athabasca tailing ponds, which the study never measures or even suggests exists (the government and industry have recorded avian deaths due to tailing ponds but at an average rate of 65 per year between 2000-2007, which is much below the rate given) (Timoney and Roncini 2010). Another issue with the number given by the newspaper article is that it is used to say that the number of deaths is thirty times higher than the government and industry estimates(Weber 2010). In comparison, Timoney and Ronconi’s study estimates that only 1630 birds per year are killed by oiling from these ponds which means that, while still high, the rates are twenty-five times higher than government and industry, not thirty times.

The newspaper article also states that the authors of the study report that some endangered animals were vulnerable to single episodes of mass death(Weber 2010). While such mass casualties have been observed before (an example of this is the” migratory waterfowl mortality event at the Syncrude Aurora North tailings pond … in April 2008 at which 1,606 dead waterfowl were later found”), the Timoney and Ronconi study did not examine the possible effect of these incidents on endangered species and did not even raise this idea at all (Timoney and Roncini 2010). In fact the study even mentioned that the “frequency of mass mortality events is unknown”, suggesting that these events may be very uncommon and that while there is a risk, it is not known if the risk is great enough to cause significant concern (Timoney and Roncini 2010).

Weber also states in his article that the overall impact of these ponds on the avian population is likely minimal. This may lead to an inaccurate view of the scale of these tailing ponds, and is a conclusion that was never mentioned in the study. According to the study, tailing ponds have more surface area than surrounding bodies of water (Timoney and Roncini 2010). The study also states that in the next eight years the extent of mining extraction of bitumen is expected to at least double, which will almost certainly increase the extent of these ponds and cause even more damage to the avian population (Timoney and Roncini 2010). Because the risk to the avian population may in fact be greater than Weber anticipated, his conclusion that the overall impact of these ponds on the avian population is likely minimal may be premature and inaccurate. The study also states that the true numbers of avian deaths is still unknown; for example, the number of deaths in poor weather conditions and at certain times of the year, as well as the number of incidents of mass avian mortalities is unknown (Timoney and Roncini 2010). This may make the estimates lower than the actual number of deaths. This means that while at first glance these ponds may appear to cause minimal damage to the avian populations, the study raises the possibility that the damage might be greater. Therefore, the impression left by the newspapers description does not match the tone and some of the points raised in the study.

Despite the discrepancies between the newspaper article and the published study, the article accurately portrays the purpose of the study. The newspaper article also accurately summarizes the methods used by the study to obtain the results. This helps the reader understand the purpose of the study and how it was undertaken, which gives the study some validity in the readers’ eyes. The article also acknowledges that industry is required to have deterrents in the tailing ponds and that there is room for improvement in this area, which are points that are raised in the study (Weber 2010). Similarly, the article also points out the surprising differences between the study’s estimates of avian fatalities compared to the number of fatalities reported by the government and industries (Weber 2010). This is one of the main concerns in the study, and it emphasizes the need for a more accurate and reliable system to monitor avian deaths caused by tailing ponds (Timoney and Roncini 2010). In these ways the newspaper article did an excellent job in conveying the advice in the study about improvements to the current system. The newspaper article and the study also both acknowledge that more data are required to acquire a more accurate estimate of avian fatalities related to these tailing ponds. By reporting this, Weber acknowledges the limitations of the study and portrays the need for more data which is expressed in the study.

While there are some discrepancies between the newspaper article and the study itself, the article manages to convey the main purpose of the study and provides a brief summary of the findings. Many of the discrepancies between the two accounts may arise from the fact that the newspaper article was meant to be a summary of the study and therefore could not portray all of the information in detail. Despite these discrepancies, in the end the newspaper article was able to get the main points of the study and display them

in an informative way

An Oiled Duck (Glenn 2007)


Nevill, Glenn. “Oil Spill damage continues.” Musings on Nature & Other Interest. 13 Nov. 2007. Web. 23 Sept. 2010.

Timoney, Kevin and Roncini, Robert. “Annual Bird Mortality in the Bitumen Tailing Ponds in Northeastern Alberta, Canada.” Wilson Journal of Ornithology 122 (2010): 569-576. Web. 19 Sept. 2010.

Weber, Bob. “Birds dying in oilsands at 30 times the rate repoted, says study.” Toronto Star. 7 Sept. 2010. Web. 19 Sept. 2010.

- Devin Vriezen, Student I.D. #0709727

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