A new study says birds are likely dying in oil sands tailings ponds at about 30 times the rate suggested by industry and government.

The results add weight to arguments that depending on industry to monitor its own environmental impacts isn’t working, said study author Kevin Timoney, an ecologist whose paper was published yesterday in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology.

Bird deaths are currently tracked through industry employees reporting found carcasses. The eight-year annual average of such reports, from 2000 to 2007, is 65.

“It’s basically ad hoc,” said Timoney, who decided to take a different approach for the tailings ponds of Suncor, Syncrude and Shell.

He started with counts of dead birds taken from formal shoreline surveys of tailings ponds done in the 1980s to get an idea of deaths per square kilometre. Those surveys remain relevant because methods of deterring bird landing haven’t changed much since then, Timoney said.

The surveys were combined with studies looking at how many birds out of the total number that flew over actually landed and were “oiled” on the tailings ponds.

Timoney then factored in reports of bird deaths obtained from the Alberta government through freedom-of-information legislation.

Using averages for the mortality rate of oiled birds, and adjusting for the increased size of tailings ponds over the last two decades, Timoney came up with what he says is a more reasonable estimate for bird deaths in the 120 square kilometres of ponds he studied.

The 14-year median, including raptors, songbirds, shorebirds and gulls, is 1,973 deaths every year. That’s more birds than died in the April 2008 incident that saw Syncrude convicted of charges under the Wildlife Act earlier this year.

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