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Thousands of Songbirds Killed at LNG Plant: Unusual, But Not Unprecedented

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The rose-breasted grosbeak was among multiple migrating birds killed by a gas flare recently. (Photograph by .Larry Page/Flickr)

Birds face numerous human-made perils on their survival, ranging from collisions with structures and poisoning by pesticides to attacks by pet felines who are allowed to roam outdoors, despite pleas by conservationists to keep them inside.  And they’re further imperiled by loss of habitat areas crucial for breeding and wintering, due to encroachment by human development. But perhaps the most horrifying fate you could imagine for migratory birds would be flying into the range of a giant flame.

Sadly, that’s exactly what happened last weekend, when between 5,000 and 10,000 migrating songbirds were killed when they apparently flew too close to a burning flare at a liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant in Saint John, New Brunswick, according to Canadian news outlets.

The birds flew into the approximately 100-foot-high gas flaring stack at the Canaport LNG facility, which enables LNG that has boiled off to be released before it poses a safety risk to the plant. Don McAlpine, head of zoology at the New Brunswick Museum, said in an interview Thursday that while the mass bird kill was a “very unusual event,” it was probably predictable.

“If you have a large flare around the coast on a foggy night when birds are flying at low altitude during migratory season, you’re asking for trouble,” he said. Though the birds probably didn’t fly directly into the flame—which he said is actually down inside the stack—if they got close enough, they would be singed or burned, he said.

Previously, McAlpine told the Canadian Broadcasting Service that an estimated 6,800 birds died immediately, while others were injured so severely that they had to be euthanized. The dead and dying birds included a variety of species, including red-eyed vireos, several types of warblers, thrushes, redstarts and rose-breasted grosbeaks. The zoologist said there’s a possibility that the death toll included some that have been classified by Canada as endangered species, such as the olive-sided flycatcher and the Canada warbler.

McAlpine said that, while relatively rare, mass bird kills have occurred before at energy facilities that using flaring. Perhaps the worst previous incident occurred in northwest Alberta in May 1980, when 3,000 birds from at least 26 different species were found dead within 250 feet of an oil industry facility stack where flaring had been occurring. According to a study published in 1987, however, the birds in that event apparently were killed by emissions from the stack, rather than the flames. (See related post: “Federal Study Highlights Eagle Deaths at Wind Farms.”)

There also have been reports of mass bird kills linked to flaring at oil platforms in the North Sea, and in the Niger delta in Africa, he said.

According to McAlpine, the avian mortality count at the plant, horrific as it seems, actually pales in comparison to the huge number of birds who are killed by other human-related causes each year. “House cats are a much bigger problem,” he said.  According to a study published in the journal Nature Communications in January 2013, between 1.4 billion and 3.7 billion birds are slaughtered by domestic cats each year.

The zoologist said he is less worried about mass bird kills from flaring than the possibility that the flames are killing smaller numbers of birds on a continual basis at facilities around the world. “There’s a possible that low-level mortality like that is undetected,” he said. “Ten to 20 birds per day could go unnoticed, because their carcasses might be eaten by predators before anyone spotted them.”

In an interview with the Canadian Press yesterday, the Canaport plant’s manager said that while the facility is making changes to its equipment that would reduce the amount of flaring, that work won’t be completed for several weeks. Until then, there’s little that can be to prevent another mass bird kill.

“We find ourselves in a dilemma here. The flare system is a safety-release system to ensure we can maintain normal operating pressures in the plant,” manager Fraser Forsythe told the news organization. “At the moment, there’s not a whole lot I can do to resolve it in the short term.”

Forsythe explained that the flaring had been necessitated in part by the changes in the energy market. Originally, the plant was designed to move large amounts of gas on a continuing basis, but now, gas is being stored so that it can be shipped during peak demand times.

McAlpine said that he urged LNG plants to adjust their operations so that they would not develop buildups that would require flaring during migratory bird season.