500 dead ducks could cost Syncrude $1M if Alberta goes ahead with charges
EDMONTON — The Alberta government has wrapped up an investigation into how 500 ducks died in the toxic sludge of an oilsands tailings pond last spring.
“The probe is complete. We’ve compiled all the evidence,” Alberta Environment spokesman Josh Stewart told The Canadian Press on Friday. “Right now we’re going through it to evaluate whether or not we’ll be passing charges along to Alberta Justice.”
The decision on charges against the company that operates the pond, Syncrude Canada Ltd., is expected to be made by the end of August, said Stewart.
“The maximum penalty for this under the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act is a $1-million fine,” he said.
Syncrude spokesman Bob Nyen was guarded in his reaction to the investigation being complete.
“All I can say is we’ll continue to co-operate with the government investigation,” he said. “We haven’t seen anything yet.”
NDP environment critic Rachel Notley said that even a $1-million fine would be paltry compared to the billions of dollars in profits that major oil companies are taking from the oilsands.
“We need to recraft our environmental legislation so that there is a true cost to not abiding by the rules,” said Notley. “We need to have more inspectors and much more significant penalties.”
Most of the ducks and other waterfowl that landed on the tailings pond at the end of April died within a few days, including the handful of birds that were rescued and brought to cleaning stations.
Company officials explained that noisemakers used to scare off birds had not yet been deployed because of a spring snowstorm. Syncrude later bought full-page newspaper ads to issue a public apology.
But the dead ducks were a major blow to Alberta’s efforts to defend its environmental record against growing international criticism, including suggestions by some in the United States that the oilsands are a “dirty” source of energy.
Greenpeace spokesman Mike Hudema said pictures of the dead and dying ducks were circulated around the world through the media and on the Internet.
“It was really the first time that some of these images got out to the rest of the world,” he said. “This incident is really the tip of the tarsands iceberg.”
People across Canada were shaken by the dead ducks and voiced their concerns on talk shows and in letters to newspapers. Prime Minister Stephen Harper described the deaths as preventable and conceded that Canada’s reputation had been harmed.
Hudema said new information began surfacing days later on other environmental problems in the oilsands region of northern Alberta.
“We’ve now heard that there are over a dozen open investigations into the tarsands,” he said. “We’ve heard about illegal water discharges into the Athabasca River.”
The story that the world is starting to hear is that the Alberta government doesn’t have a good handle on the situation, said Hudema.
“The devastation is really beyond what anybody imagined.”
Liberal environment critic David Swann said the dead ducks have resulted in international pressure on the Alberta government to clean up the oilsands, starting with giant toxic tailings ponds.
“This is threatening the very industry that they seem to be bent on protecting,” Swann said in an interview. “We’ve had 35 years of unrestricted development without any conditions really, and no oversight in the monitoring of the actual sites.”
The province requires oilsands operators to take measures to prevent birds from landing on tailings ponds, including scarecrows and noisemaking devices that sound like shotguns.
The Syncrude spokesman says the company is being vigilant to prevent any future waterfowl deaths.
“We’ve deployed all our noise cannons and the scarecrows on all our ponds and we continue to patrol them,” said Nyen. “And the operators that are working in those areas are constantly reminded to report any wildlife in the area.”