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Duck disaster sinks Alberta government’s credibility

Posted by mhudema on May 4, 2008

Graham Thomson
Calgary Herald

If they ever dredge Syncrude’s toxic tailings ponds to recover the bodies of this week’s 500 dead birds, they might also discover something else: the Alberta government’s credibility on oilsands development. It’s lying at the bottom of the tailings ponds, as much a victim of deadly waste and questionable environmental policies as the ducks themselves.

It’ll take more than a good soap-and-water scrubbing to restore any lustre to this tarnished credibility, let alone life. When dealing with what even the environment minister deemed to be a “tragedy,” the government has been by turns secretive, defensive and combative — when it should have been simply sorry, sorry, sorry.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, on the other hand, seems to understand the political effectiveness of throwing yourself at the mercy of the court of public opinion. “It’s obviously a terrible tragedy and I think we and a lot of people are upset about it,” Harper told reporters at a news conference in Edmonton on Thursday.

“I think we expect better, to be quite honest. This kind of thing shouldn’t be happening.”

Harper wasn’t making excuses or downplaying the seriousness of the incident. You got the impression he understood the public outrage and was sincerely interested in helping find ways to stop it happening again. Interestingly enough, that’s actually how the Alberta government first responded on Tuesday in a news conference with Premier Ed Stelmach and Environment Minister Rob Renner.

The two looked upset and made a point of saying they were alerted to the disaster not by Syncrude, but by an anonymous tip. Stelmach promised to take tough action if the company had broken government regulations.

“The issue here is that there is a non-compliance of a very strict condition of the licence to operate,” said a grim-faced premier. Almost immediately, Syncrude shot back, insisting it was in the process of verifying the severity of the incident and had every intention of reporting the dead birds to the government as required by law when the government called Syncrude about the anonymous tip.

Since then, the government has been backpedalling, doing damage control on its damage control. Renner, for example, has suddenly decided it doesn’t matter whether Syncrude reported the incident. “The issue of reporting, quite frankly, is irrelevant,” Renner told incredulous reporters, who pointed out the government had initially made a big deal of the fact that first notice of the dead birds had come from an anonymous tip. “My concern, at this point, is not so much who said what, when, but why did the deterrents that should have been operational fail to employ.”

Opposition politicians immediately suspected the government was trying to protect Syncrude while attempting to repair the damage it had done to its own credibility by initially acknowledging the industry’s self-monitoring system for environmental protection might be seriously flawed. The opposition then smelled a coverup when word came that Environment officials might have photographs showing the immense scope of the duck disaster.

If a picture of one dying duck is worth a thousand editorials, imagine the public relations disaster of a picture showing ducks dying by the boatload. It would be the photographic shot heard round the world. Renner, usually one of the most articulate politicians in the country, was suddenly tongue-tied when reporters asked him if the pictures existed. “I would suspect there may be, but it’s something I’m not aware of,” Renner said. When reporters asked if he’d hand them over, he hesitated, saying the incident took place on private property and then added, “The question is not easily answered and I don’t have the answer.”

Stelmach took a more combative stand later in the week by trying to downplay the incident, saying 30,000 birds die each year when they fly into wind turbines in the U.S. That prompted reporters to ask Renner what the government is doing to stop birds being killed by wind turbines in southern Alberta. Renner sidestepped the question.

Stelmach’s comment was an oddly hard-hearted defence, akin to dismissing an airplane accident because more people die in car crashes every year.

Human life might be infinitely more sacred than a duck’s, but the fact remains that great loss of life in one awful moment grabs people’s attention, whether it be men or mallards.

This story, and the headache for the government, isn’t about how many ducks died, but how they died — slowly suffocating in a massive lake of toxic sludge.

People will understandably ask themselves, how can anyone deny the oilsands are a source of “dirty oil” if the process kills not only innocent animals, but government credibility?

Graham Thomson is a political affairs columnist at the Edmonton Journal

gthomson@thejournal.canwest.com

© The Calgary Herald 2008
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