TopVids Biodiversity2

Pierre Gratton

President & CEO, Mining Association of Canada.

The mining industry practices the highest environmental standards with a deep commitment to sustainable development.

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“The Mining Association of Canada's Towards Sustainable Mining (TSM) program is a risk management approach to ensuring the responsible development of our industry. It includes annual performance-based public reporting and third-party assurance. Some of the areas covered include tailings management, energy use and GHG emissions, and Aboriginal and community outreach.

We added a biodiversity protocol a couple of years ago because our Community of Interest Advisory Panel recognized it as an emerging issue. We want our industry to respond to it proactively by setting up a system to measure a company's impact on biodiversity, the steps taken to mitigate that impact, and actions taken to promote biodiversity in their operations. Syncrude's work with wood bison and land reclamation are good examples of the directions we want to go with this protocol. The mining industry practices the highest environmental standards with a deep commitment to sustainable development. A commitment to biodiversity conservation is essential.”


Performance Overview

  • Continued to test and install Hyperspike acoustic devices as part of improved waterfowl deterrent system
  • Songbird monitoring continued;  preliminary results indicate a healthy presence of species in our reclaimed areas
  • Wolves outfitted with radio collars as part of industry research on wildlife movement and monitoring
  • No charges laid in 2010 regional waterfowl incident, which also affected other oil sands operators

Our Commitment

Syncrude manages biodiversity through a commitment to environmental stewardship which encompasses specific programs aimed at ensuring our operations do not have a long-term permanent impact on local ecosystems and, upon project completion, re-establishing a diversity of wildlife and fish habitats similar to those that existed prior to disturbance of the area.

Through Syncrude’s biodiversity management systems, we strive for continuous improvements in our evaluation and reporting programs, as well as avoidance or mitigation of significant adverse biodiversity effects, together with improving our communications and reclaiming the land that was disturbed.

Our Adherence to Mining Association Standards

As a member of the Mining Association of Canada, we adhere to the principles outlined in the Towards Sustainable Mining initiative. This includes a protocol on biodiversity conservation which Syncrude assisted to develop. As stated in the protocol, we recognize that "access to land and a company's social license depend upon responsible social, environmental and economic practices and that there is a strong business case for supporting biodiversity conservation. MAC members believe that mining, conducted in consultation with communities of interest, can co-exist with biodiversity conservation."

Biodiversity Planning and Reporting

Syncrude operations must adhere to environmental regulations, including the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, and Alberta Wildlife Act. As well, every 10 years, Syncrude must obtain operating approval by submitting a detailed plan outlining how the organization will steward to government requirements regarding environmental protection, reclamation and mine closure. Compliance reporting and status updates are submitted midway through the reporting period.

Our plan includes an overview on biodiversity establishment and monitoring. It outlines how we incorporate biodiversity into the various aspects of reclamation, including landscape formation, soil placement, vegetation, fish and wildlife.

Many of our practices lead to enhanced opportunities for biodiversity in the reclaimed landscape. For example, we place coarse woody debris in selected areas to provide cover for small mammals and nesting birds. Landforms are also designed with physical/topographical diversity to accommodate both terrestrial and wetland habitats.

Our reclamation specialists contribute to ongoing improvements in biodiversity planning and monitoring in the region through a specialized task group of the CEMA Reclamation Working Group.

Regional Involvement and Biodiversity Initiatives

Several programs and research initiatives have been established in northeastern Alberta to assess and monitor the cumulative environmental effects of industrial development at a regional scale. This work is undertaken by government and stakeholders such as Aboriginal communities, industry, environmental advocacy groups, and health organizations. Syncrude funds and/or provides staff expertise to the following:

Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute (ABMI) – measures and reports on the health of ecosystems in the province. Operating at arm's length from government, industry and environmental groups, it provides peer-reviewed data that is used to improve resource management through the provincial government's Land-use Framework.

The Canadian Oil Sands Network for Research and Development (CONRAD) – supports a broad range of research projects in environmental and reclamation science through its Environmental and Reclamation Research Group (ERRG). Research focuses on a variety of disciplines, from wildlife biology to hydrogeology and toxicology. Grants are typically used to fund university and research organizations aimed at improving existing practices. CONRAD's environmental-related activities are currently being shifted over to Canada's Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA). 

Cumulative Environmental Management Association (CEMA) – established to assess cumulative environmental effects from industrial development and provide recommendations to regulators on how to best manage these issues. It is governed by over 50 members representing all levels of government, industry, regulatory bodies, environmental advocacy groups, Aboriginal communities, academic institutions and the local health authority. Since its inception, the association has delivered 10 major management frameworks on ozone, acid deposition, trace metals, nitrogen, ecosystems and water. The association includes a reclamation working group and traditional environmental knowledge advisory committee through which Aboriginal stakeholders share biodiversity perspectives.

Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP) – an environmental monitoring program established in 1997 to assess the health of rivers and lakes in the oil sands region. RAMP collects and analyzes data from aquatic environments to better understand the oil sands area, and to identify and address the potential impacts of development. The organization is continuing with its aquatic monitoring programs as part of the transition to the new Joint Canada-Alberta Implementation Plan for Oil Sands Monitoring. 

Wood Buffalo Environmental Association (WBEA) – a multi-stakeholder environmental monitoring program that operates similar to, and works jointly with, RAMP. WBEA monitors and reports on air quality in the region and the effects of air quality changes and deposition on terrestrial resources. The association operates 15 ambient and 20 passive air-monitoring stations throughout the region.

These regional initiatives, research projects and biodiversity monitoring programs all use multi-stakeholder and interdisciplinary strategies to monitor the environment and provide recommendations to government for environmental sustainability. The objectives of each of these regional programs include understanding the natural condition of wildlife habitat, reclaiming wildlife habitat, and maintaining biodiversity in the region.

Wildlife Movement and Corridors

We do not view our active mining operations suitable for wildlife. We discourage wildlife movement through the area and do not have any crossing structures or corridors on our developed leases. Wildlife presence is also discouraged in active areas to decrease interactions with staff.

As well, in constructing access roads and right-of-ways, we follow existing linear corridors to the greatest extent practical in order to reduce vegetation clearing and habitat fragmentation.

Our operations are not located within the range of Alberta's woodland caribou herds or the proposed protection zones of the draft Recovery Strategy for the Woodland Caribou, Boreal Population. As such, we do not participate in multi-stakeholder groups formed to research and monitor this issue. However, we do keep informed of policy development at the provincial and federal levels regarding any potential impact on our business or land closure requirements.

In 2009, Syncrude, in partnership with the CONRAD Environmental and Reclamation Research Group, commenced a research program into wildlife habitat effectiveness and connectivity in the Athabasca river valley. One hundred remote cameras are placed along five rivers and their adjacent uplands within the Athabasca river watershed, and are used to monitor wildlife between mine boundaries and the river. In 2012, wolves were outfitted with radio collars to help understand their movements and monitoring is on-going. 

There will be no habitat barriers on our reclaimed lands at mine closure.

Biodiversity Wolf

As part of a CONRAD study on wolf movement, cameras with motion senors are located throughout the oil sands region. Credit: University of Alberta

Wildlife Protection

Syncrude operates within a large tract of wilderness in northern Alberta's boreal forest and employs a number of strategies to deter wildlife from our sites. These include our waterfowl protection plan, and restrictions on the handling of food and food waste.

We are required by law to report sightings and wildlife incidents occurring on our site to regulators. In situations where distressed wildlife is found, the animal is assessed and appropriate action is taken under the guidance of Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development Fish and Wildlife officials.

Regular reminders are communicated to employees and contractors outlining the danger of feeding wildlife and improper disposal of refuse. Other measures used to deter wildlife include regular garbage pick-up and scare cannons. In addition, in 2010, we reached an agreement with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo to start transporting non-hazardous waste to the municipal landfill. This has reduced the number of seagulls and predators, such as bears, wolves and coyotes, attracted to this area.

There were seven non-avian wildlife mortality incidents, including those related to natural causes, in 2012. All were reported to Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development. 

Waterfowl and Bird Protection

Measures are in place to protect local birds and deter migrating waterfowl from our site. For example, no vegetation is cleared during the migratory songbird nesting and rearing season unless survey and field checking indicate an absence of nesting activity.

We also follow a number of procedures to deter waterfowl and other birds from coming in contact with bitumen on our process ponds and tailings areas. Propane-fired cannons and falcon effigies with sound effects are placed in the water or on the shoreline of ponds. Monitoring occurs on a full-time basis throughout the migration period and, if necessary, pyrotechnic flare guns, airhorns and boat movement are also used. Radar monitoring systems, similar to those used at airports, are also in place which automatically activate our deterrent system when birds are detected in the area.

In 2012, we continued to test and install Hyperspike acoustic devices capable of projecting precise, directional sound towards areas of bird activity detected by radar. 

Significant progress is also being made in the development and implementation of technologies to accelerate tailings ponds reclamation. See the Tailings Management chapter for more detail.

Avian Incident Tracking

Includes all bird and waterfowl mortalities related to oiling. Incidents are reported to the Alberta Government Sustainable Resource Development department. 


Update on 2010 Waterfowl Incident

In October 2010, despite a fully operational bird deterrent system, about 460 ducks landed on the Mildred Lake settling basin and were euthanized due to coming into contact with bitumen floating on the surface. Other operators reported similar occurrences. After a thorough investigation involving input from a leading academic and expert in human-wildlife encounters, the Government of Alberta announced in 2012 that charges would not be laid in the incident.

The investigation concluded the bird landings could not have been prevented due mainly to adverse weather conditions. This included strong and variable winds, freezing rain and poor visibility. These factors forced migratory birds to land in large numbers in and around tailings ponds, as well as onto roadways and parking lots.

Based on the investigation report, further enhancements have been made to Syncrude’s deterrent system to take into account deterrent positioning and how artificial light can influence bird behaviour in poor weather.

Wildlife Monitoring

There are a number of initiatives underway to monitor wildlife throughout the oil sands region, including Syncrude reclamation areas. For example, we continue to support the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute and the projects developed through the Ecological Monitoring Committee for the Lower Athabasca Planning Region. As well, through CEMA's Wildlife Task Group, we participate in the Early Successional Wildlife Monitoring Program on Reclaimed Plots in the Oil Sands program.

In addition, during consultations on a permit change to our sand storage facility, we were asked by our Aboriginal stakeholders to investigate the presence of large terrestrial mammals on the site and compare it with surrounding areas. In response, we initiated a project with Keyano College to study the area over a three-year period, ending in 2012. Results are now being evaluated.

Further research began in 2011 with the Institute for Bird Populations' Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship (MAPS) program. This program monitors numbers, habitat development, bird reproduction and survivorship in reclaimed areas and compares it with natural habitats. Preliminary results indicate a healthy presence of songbirds in our reclaimed areas. Studies continued in 2012.

We also monitor the wildlife that has returned to our reclaimed land to ensure restoration practices are creating attractive habitat for species to return. Regulators require this data as part of the government certification process.

Bio Wildlife Monitoring bird

Songbirds like warblers frequent Syncrude's reclaimed oil sand mine sites. Syncrude has engaged the Institute for Bird Populations' Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship (MAPS) program to help examine their migration patterns through the region. 

Parks and Protected Areas

Syncrude's operations are not located on, or adjacent to, any protected area, park or nature reserve. There are however a number of protected parks and areas throughout the boreal forest of northeastern Alberta, including Wood Buffalo National Park – the largest national park in the country and a UNESCO World Heritage site – located approximately 200 kilometres north.