Staff, vehicle shortage kept Syncrude from protecting ducks

Recently released statements by employees of Syncrude reveal new details about equipment and staff shortages that may have contributed to the deaths of hundreds of ducks at one of the Alberta company's oilsands sites two years ago.

Not enough people, trucks to erect scarecrows, air cannons: employee statements

Images of dead and dying ducks stuck in the bitumen atop Syncrude's tailings pond made headlines after they were submitted as evidence at the oilsands company's trial in St. Albert, Alta., on March 2. ((Government of Alberta))
Recently released statements by employees of Syncrude reveal new details about equipment and staff shortages that may have contributed to the deaths of hundreds of ducks at one of the Alberta company's oilsands sites two years ago.

About 1,600 ducks died on April 28, 2008, after they landed on Syncrude's Aurora tailings pond in northern Alberta, which collects the byproducts of bitumen extraction from oilsands. The migratory birds got stuck in the toxic sludge of bitumen remnants, clay, sand and metals that makes up the pond and sank to the bottom.

Transcripts of statements obtained by the CBC on Wednesday suggest a lack of vehicles and available staff kept waterfowl deterrents from being set up in the days leading up to the deaths.

The employee statements, made to provincial and federal environmental officials in the weeks following the deaths, were released after a provincial court judge ruled against a company request to prevent the media from publicizing their contents.

The case against Syncrude, which has been charged with violating the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act and the federal Migratory Birds Convention Act, is currently being heard in provincial court in St. Albert, Alta.

The company is accused of not installing adequate deterrents to dissuade birds from using the pond, which is closer in size to a lake.

Syncrude officials have long maintained that a spring storm had delayed the erection of scarecrows and noise-making air cannons around the tailings pond, but the documents suggest there were other reasons as well.

According to the employee statements, the oil giant's bird and ecology team, or BET, only had one truck available to put out air cannons instead of the usual four.

One vehicle was on loan to another division of Syncrude; the others could not be obtained from a rental company because of high demand for vehicles in the area at the time.

The eight employees responsible for placing deterrents on the pond were scheduled to start on April 14, 2008, but some of them were delayed for several days because of personal reasons and human resources problems.

The documents also reveal that the team used to have 13 members in the late 1990s, but the numbers dwindled over the years because of attrition.

No cannons on tailings pond

There were no cannons on or around the Aurora North tailings pond the day the ducks got trapped in it, BET team leader Dave Matthews told officials in an interview conducted nearly a month after the deaths.

The deterrents had instead been placed around a smaller pond on the site that is usually the first to thaw in the spring and at the company's base plant.

When asked why he thought the ducks landed on the tailings pond, Matthews offered what he called his personal opinion. 

"We were the only open body of water around," he said.

"Do you think that having the only open body of water in northern Alberta perhaps at the time that it would have been useful to have scare cannons both deployed on the body of water and on shore at that point in time?" Martin Paetz from Alberta Environment asked later in the interview.

"Yeah, it would have been, if we could have got there," Matthews replied.

Statements entered as exhibits at trial

Syncrude has been on trial since March 1.

The 28 statements made by 22 employees were entered as exhibits in the trial. On Monday, Syncrude's lawyer, Robert White, argued that allowing the media to report on the statements could cause a mistrial if they were later ruled inadmissible by the judge.

However, a lawyer for CBC and the Edmonton Journal successfully fought for the release of the documents, arguing that the courts must be as open as possible.

Syncrude faces one count under Section 155 of the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act for allegedly failing to ensure that hazardous substances directly or indirectly not come into contact or contaminate any animals, plants, food or drink.

It is also charged with one count of violating the federal Migratory Birds Convention Act for allegedly depositing or permitting the deposit of a substance harmful to migratory birds in waters or an area frequented by birds.