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Alberta minister rejects inquiry into duck deaths

Posted by mhudema on May 6, 2008

JIM MACDONALD

THE CANADIAN PRESS

EDMONTON — The Alberta government is rejecting calls for a public inquiry into the death of 500 ducks that landed on a toxic oil sands tailings pond.

Greenpeace activist Mike Hudema stood on the steps of the legislature Monday and demanded an independent review into last week’s waterfowl disaster in northern Alberta.

“No amount of well meaning words … and not even a week’s worth of full-page apology ads are going to solve these problems,” Mr. Hudema said. “Only truthful answers, hard questions and meaningful action will do that.”

Syncrude ran such ads in several major newspapers on the weekend.

But Environment Minister Renner says he has full confidence in the province’s ongoing investigation of what happened April 28 at a Syncrude Canada site near Fort McMurray.

“I think that we have people that are very capable of conducting an investigation,” the minister said. “I have the utmost amount of faith in the report that they’ll be providing for me.”

The death of the ducks is unacceptable and the province will find out why it happened and take action to make sure it doesn’t happen again, Mr. Renner said.

“The investigation is going to look at … what led up to the incident, what caused the incident and then we’ll make a decision as to what we need to do from that point.”

Opposition Leader Kevin Taft told the legislature he also believes a public inquiry is what’s needed on a wide range of issues, including whether steps should be taken to reduce the amount of oil sands wastes stored in lake-sized tailings ponds.

“We have toxic lakes covering 50 square kilometres that when 500 birds land in them only three come out alive,” said the Alberta Liberal Leader. “How are we going to wind these things down?

“The stakes are so high here. And the only way we’re going to get the real truth is a full public inquiry.”

Aboriginal leaders in the Fort McMurray area have already called on the federal government for an inquiry.

Mr. Hudema also said independent wildlife and environmental experts should be sent out to search other tailings ponds for dead wildlife.

ConocoPhillips Canada reported Saturday that eight birds, including three loons, had settled on a briny pond at that company’s oil sands project northeast of Fort McMurray.

It’s becoming evident that the 500 ducks represent just a fraction of the wildlife being affected by the toxic ponds used to hold oil sands wastes, Mr. Hudema suggested.

“How effective is the province’s monitoring program? Do they have sufficient officers in the field and what is left to industry to report on their own?”

Whistleblowers are playing a key role in alerting the public, so Greenpeace wants the province to offer job protection for people who make those calls, Mr. Hudema said.

The environmental group has said anonymous tipsters called in about both the Syncrude and ConocoPhillips incidents.

Greenpeace says it is considering a provincewide campaign to ask potential whistleblowers to come forward if they have evidence of environmental threats to humans or wildlife.

“If the government continues to let big oil set the rules in this province, then we will be forced to respond,” Mr. Hudema said in a release.

Greenpeace is also calling for stiffer penalties for environmental infractions.

Premier Ed Stelmach told a news conference last week that Syncrude would face charges if they were found negligent in the death of the 500 ducks. A maximum fine of $1-million was mentioned.

But Mr. Hudema suggested $1-million is “chump change” to a company that has profits in the billions.

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