On Tricking Ducks: Industrial Naturecultures and the Toxic Bodies of Oil Sands Country

By Whitney Larratt-Smith, UC Davis §

“We were walking for a long time before I saw it. It was an exceptionally hot day in July for Northern Alberta, intensified by the acrid fumes of bitumen, diesel, and sulfur entering my lungs. I was starting to get a headache, and felt increasingly weary walking on the scorching pavement. Children attending the healing walk with their parents ran ahead of the group playing tag with one another, their eyes smiling, their laughter muffled by the white respiratory masks covering their mouths and noses. We came to the top of a small hill and I saw a massive fenced-in lake. “Oh” I thought in surprise, “I didn’t know this was up here”. A split second later a wave of realization hit me, followed by an uneasy mixture of amusement and horror at my mistake. What I had instantaneously, unconsciously understood as a lake was a tailings pond right at the entrance of the ‘Syncrude loop’ we were about to walk around. I remained in awe for quite some time as we began walking the fourteen kilometer paved loop, which was really kind of a very long driveway to Syncrude’s upgrading facilities, tailings ponds on either side for much of the way. It was overcast and muggy, everything seemed grey and suffocated by the thick air. Propelled forward by the unrelenting rhythm kept by the Dene drummers at the center of the march, we stopped at designated places during the walk where it was appropriate to conduct ceremony- facing each of the four cardinal directions. Indigenous elders from the area said prayers and laid down medicine against the chain link fences surrounding the ponds. There were over four hundred of us watching, standing together on the blistering pavement, our solemn silence punctuated by the deafening boom of waterfowl deterrent cannons and the eerie screeches of plastic eagle effigies.” (1)

This essay, distilled from a chapter of my forthcoming dissertation, provides a brief glimpse at the multiplicity of logics, technologies, and assumptions circulating within the Alberta oil sands industry that enabled my experience of the tailings (2) pond as an uncanny feature of the environment that day at the Syncrude loop. Drawing from two years of ethnographic fieldwork in Fort Chipewyan (an Indigenous community downstream from the oil sands) and Fort McMurray (the epicenter of industrial operations), my research traces emergent forms and meanings of water(s) for a diversity of actors enrolled in the ecological and human impacts of the Alberta oil sands industry. A central aim of this work is to explicate what I call the multiple modalities (3) of waters and their capacities for ecologies of life, illness, and death under conditions of rapid ecological transformations and voracious extractive industrial encroachment. As an anthropologist of waters, I am interested in the deeply ambiguous affective capacities of tailings ponds, their profound toxicity as newly formed bodies of (non)waters, and their role as silent mediums for industrial upgrading chemicals to enter the Peace-Athabasca Delta downstream from operations. Tailings ponds are essential to the production of synthetic crude from raw bitumen, yet also act as an Achilles heel of public scorn and legal liabilities for the oil sands industry over the negative ecological impacts of their operations.

During fieldwork I confronted a situation where colonial legacies of accumulation and dispossession are deeply entwined with neoliberal practices of intensive multinational investment, environmental deregulation, and public-private partnerships that invariably suffocate particular modes of life. These political technologies of power rely on an array of scientific practices that are equally enrolled in making tar sands operations possible: seismology to locate bitumen deposits, hydrology and ecology to attempt reclamation projects, ornithology to account for the millions of migratory birds that traverse the boreal forest every year, and toxicology to support, deny, or obfuscate the claims of Indigenous peoples living downstream in Fort Chipewyan. Such technoscientific interventions operate in such a way for claims of certainty and/or predictability to emerge about the behavior of an incredible array of entities: silts, sands, clays, bitumen, chemical slurries, wetlands, rivers, glacial runoff, caribou, poplar trees and ducks are transformed from messy, unpredictable ‘matters of concern’ that scientific and corporate entities can present as contained, regulated, controlled ‘matters of fact’ (Latour 2004). The other half of my chapter, left out for the sake of brevity, grapples with another particularly striking matter of fact I encountered in Northern Alberta: The industrial transformation of decades-old tailings ponds into ‘reclaimed wetlands’, or, as Suncor Canada’s Vice President of Regional Development phrased it, “a stable and self-supporting ecosystem that meets the requirements of our stakeholders.” (4)

Were-waters from 5000 feet. Image by author.

This essay examines an event of mass waterfowl death on Syncrude Canada’s Aurora tailings pond and the subsequent legal case R. v. Syncrude Canada Ltd as an instance of how a multinational corporation’s socio-material practices and legal argumentations can be seen to bring particular notions of ‘the environment’ into being in Northern Alberta. I aim to illustrate some of the tensions that appear when vibrant matter (Bennett 2009) such as ducks, ‘unrecovered’ bitumen on tailings ponds, and ice storms are categorized as ‘natural’ features of ‘the environment’ by an industry that must be able to perform varying degrees of control over those spaces and entities in order to gain the confidence of its investors, as well as social license from the Canadian public. What is the environment that emerges (however tenuously) as if untouched by these interests? How to apprehend the unnerving transformation of freshwaters, the precondition for all biological life on earth, to ghostly bodies of their former selves- tricking humans and waterfowl alike?

My work takes as a theoretical point of entry that the environment is not a given, preexisting realm of life acted upon by various groups of people in a number of different ways. Rather, I attend to the ways in which the environment is enacted (Mol 2002) within the Alberta oil sands industry, and might be more productively thought of as a series of material-discursive arrangements (Barad 1998) emerging from specific, sedimented histories, colonial modes of thought, and ontological possibilities for what can constitute the ‘out-there’ of reality. This theoretical approach is situated within and contributes to Actor-Network theory, which utilizes “material-semiotic tools, sensibilities, and methods of analysis that treat everything in the social and natural worlds as a continuously generated effect of the webs of relations within which they are located. It assumes that nothing has reality or form outside the enactment of those relations. Its studies explore and characterize the webs and the practices that carry them” (Law 2007:2).

Clouds reflected in tailings. Image by author.

During an intense snow and ice storm in late April 2008, approximately 1600 ducks died after landing on Syncrude’s Aurora tailings pond just outside Fort McMurray. Images of bitumen-drenched duck corpses and astonishing aerial images of tailings ponds flooded national newspapers; the resulting media firestorm drew unprecedented attention to tailings ponds as an irrefutably horrifying embodiment of the ‘toxic tar sands’ for much of the Canadian public. This event occurred during a major boom in the Canadian oil economy, the price of oil that summer had exceeded $140 a barrel; right-leaning Albertans were suddenly pitted against more center-left leaning Canadians and the political discourse of ‘economy vs. environment’ took on a new life. In the face of increasing criticism for what was materializing as a deeply inadequate regulatory system, the federal government prosecuted Syncrude for violations of the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act and the Migratory Birds Convention Act. They were found guilty and subsequently fined three million dollars in August 2010.

Analyzing the various legal rationales within R. v. Syncrude Canada Ltd, one encounters a dizzying array of assumptions about the environment and its waterfowl inhabitants around Fort McMurray. Syncrude’s legal team argued that the late season ice storm had prevented the timely installation of waterfowl deterrents at the Aurora tailings pond. That the ducks sought to escape the ice storm by landing on this tailings pond was an unfortunate, but uncontrollable coincidence. The crux of this line of reasoning relied on the ‘Act of God’ defense, which is established in Canadian common law to:

“…negate both negligence and causation, both because it is unforeseeable and because there is no human contribution… An Act of God is a natural event that is uncontrollable or unavoidable and causes harm independently of any contributing conduct or activity of man. ” (5)

In this case, Syncrude’s legal team created an argument seeking recognition of both the ice storm and the ducks behavior in landing on the pond during the storm as ‘Acts of God’. The Honorable Ken Tjosvold, however, ruled that Syncrude was legally liable for the waterfowl deaths because they had failed to install and deploy waterfowl cannons to deter the ducks from landing; Syncrude was guilty of “failing to exercise due diligence to prevent the birds from landing in its tailings pond. ” (6) Judge Tjosvold sided with the Crown prosecutor’s premise that had the waterfowl cannons and deterrent technology been in place, this would have constituted reasonable measures to prevent the ducks from landing and, it seems, inevitably dying as a result. In his concluding remarks, Judge Tjosvold precisely summarized this position: “Unfortunately, some waterfowl will die in the tar sands tailings ponds regardless of deterrent efforts. More birds will die without effective deterrents. ” (7)

Syncrude’s legal argumentation, by connecting the waterfowl deaths to an unseasonable, ‘extreme’ event, framed the incident as exceptional, one in which the ducks’ movements were relegated to a sphere of the uncontrollable and unavoidable- a discursive space in which they hoped to seek refuge beyond the scope of the law. Of particular interest is how Judge Tjosvold’s ruling, although against Syncrude, agreed with the underlying logic of their argument: Industry cannot be expected to control whether or not ducks land on their tailings ponds in all situations, and the best they can do (and must do, to fulfill their due diligence) is implement technological innovations to deter them from doing so. Syncrude was guilty because it had not installed deterrent technologies, not because the ducks landed on the tailings pond in the first place.

Flying bald eagle effigy: Imperial Oil. Image by author.

The subject-object and nature-culture binaries are absolutely fundamental to the scientific, corporate, and legal practices that simultaneously enact Alberta’s subterranean ecologies as ‘natural resources’, part of a wild, unrefined environment, versus the manageable, contained, replicable environment circulating within industrial technoscientific practices and aspirations. Waterfowl deterrent technologies in particular are forming an emergent, ambiguous interface between industrial designations of human and nonhuman social worlds. Crucially, the ducks’ agency as nonhuman actors disrupting industrial efforts to manage their behavior does not transcend these efforts. Instead, ducks and other waterfowl continue to interrupt corporate endeavors to create an environment about which certainty and predictability are possible. In R. v. Syncrude, human technological interventions (‘culture’) are separate from, and can only attempt to control, the unknowable biological behaviors of ducks (‘nature’) through ambivalent machinations that create a mimicry of ‘the environment’: Eagle effigies and their electronic screeches attempt to replicate ducks’ predators, while the design and creation of deafening waterfowl cannons play upon scientific knowledge that affirms their ingrained fearfulness. However, this case highlights the tension between the ducks’ disparate enactments as controllable entities complying with deterrents versus the wild, instinct-driven animals landing on the tailings pond in an extreme ice storm. The legal reasoning, far from emboldening corporate veneers of a manageable, investor-friendly environment, exposes the deep entanglement of human and nonhuman actors in Northern Alberta: what ducks do is both an effect of human actions and beyond the grasp of it.

The tailings ponds of the Alberta oil sands industry reveal a nexus of mutually reinforcing political and technoscientific efforts to congeal and reproduce the environment as a distinct realm- paradoxically separate from human social worlds, yet still subject to intensive interventions to retrieve latent capital, buried in the form of ‘natural resources’. However, the environment as a material-discursive arrangement that emerges from these efforts is never a discrete, omnipresent space (‘nature’) that achieves stable, permanent objecthood in spite of human interventions (‘culture’). Analyzing how this environment is enacted as a predictable, controllable ‘out-there’ of reality, despite ongoing events like mass waterfowl deaths and uncooperative weather patterns that disrupt such efforts, one can glimpse slippages within industrial and state modes of environmentality (Agrawal 2005) that can be seen to subvert the logics of the nature-culture binary, even as their interventions continue to reify and reproduce such paradigms.

Works Cited
Agrawal, Arun 2005 Environmentality: Technologies of Government and the Making of Subjects, Duke University Press.

Barad, Karen 1998 Getting real: Technoscientific Practices and the Materialization of Reality. Differences-Bloomington 10:87-126.

Bennett, Jane 2010 Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Duke University Press.
Latour, Bruno 2004 Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern Critical Inquiry Vol. 30, No. 2, pp. 225-248
Law, John 2007 Actor Network Theory and Material Semiotics, available at

Mol, Annemarie 2002 The body multiple: Ontology in medical practice. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

R. v. Syncrude Canada Ltd., 2010 ABPC 229. http://www2.ecolex.org/server2.php/libcat/docs/COU/Full/En/COU-156910.pdf


1. The above excerpt is from my preliminary fieldwork research, conducted in the summer of 2013 in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. I was participating in the 3rd Annual Tar Sands Healing Walk, a nonprofit, grassroots event aimed at building awareness about issues of ecological harm and Indigenous sovereignty emerging from the Alberta oil sands industry. The majority of participants are members of First Nations and Metis groups from across Canada; ancestral practices, teachings, and prayer are a guiding force of the ceremonial engagement with industrial infrastructures in and around Fort McMurray.

2. Freshwater is essential to the upgrading process of bitumen from its raw form, trapped in ‘oil sand’ (so named because the oil molecules are trapped in a mixture of sand, silt, and clay) to synthetic crude oil. This water is taken from intake pumps along the Athabasca River, mixed with solvents and other chemicals then heated and used as high-pressure steam to blast the sand, silt, and clay off of the excavated heavy crude bitumen. After being reused anywhere from fifteen to eighteen times, the remaining water/chemical mixture becomes known as ‘tailings’, a term from the mining industry that has historically referred to the leftover material after the economically valuable portion has been separated from the unusable rock, sand, or other material.

3. I use the noun modality in this sense as the way in which water exists, is experienced, or expressed.

4. This quote is a transcription of Chris Grant’s statements from Suncor’s Tailings Management public relations video, available at http://www.suncor.com/sustainability/environment/tailings-management

5. Section E. 134 R. v. Syncrude Canada Ltd

6. Section 46.2 R. vs. Syncrude Canada Ltd

7. Section E. 165 R. v. Syncrude Canada Ltd.

Whitney Larratt-Smith is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociocultural Anthropology at the University of California, Davis. Her forthcoming dissertation “Aqueous Worldings: The ecological politics of life downstream from the Alberta oil sands” is an exploration of what she terms the ‘multiple modalities of waters’ for the diverse actors enrolled in the human-ecological impacts of the Canadian oil sands industry. Originally from Toronto, Larratt-Smith holds a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from McGill University, an L.L.M in International Human Rights Law from the National University of Ireland, Galway, and a Master of Arts in Anthropology from U.C. Davis. Her dissertation research has been supported by numerous prestigious grants, including a Social Science Research Council International Dissertation Research Fellowship, a Wenner Gren Dissertation Fieldwork Grant, and Jacobs Research Funds from the Whatcom Museum, Bellingham, WA.

This post is part of our thematic series: Toxic Bodies.