Suncor Energy should have known there were safety problems at a section of its oilsands site near Fort McMurray months before a worker fell into an icy tailings pond and drowned in January 2014, court documents say.

In the seven months prior to the drowning of tailings pond operator Jerry Cooper, the company had recorded a series of "near misses" and "incident reports" stemming from softened ground caused by pipeline leaks in the same tailings pond area, according to an agreed statement of facts obtained Thursday by CBC News.

"The defendant should have been aware of the potential danger of drowning to a line patrol operator, in winter conditions and during the hours of darkness, arising from a leak in a tailings pipeline," according to the agreed statement of facts from a provincial court case in April. 

Suncor pleaded guilty and was fined $300,000 for failing to ensure the health and safety of Cooper.

Cooper, 40, drowned after falling through ground softened by a leaking tailings pipe. He had worked for the company for 13 years.

While the company was fined $300,000, the judge used the creative sentencing section of the Occupational Health and Safety Act to order that $285,000 of that be used to fund a University of Alberta engineering study into tailings pond safety and storage.

Three other occupational health and safety charges were withdrawn after the guilty plea.

While Cooper's death received media coverage, the court case in Fort McMurray which led to the fine did not.

Suncor cautions 'near misses' comparison

Suncor spokesperson Sneh Seetal cautioned about comparing the previous incident reports and "near misses" to the situation which led to Cooper's death.

"None of these were incidents that had high probability of serious injury or harm," Seetal said. "Nor were they incidents that could be compared to the very unique situation that developed at the time of the tragic incident."

Unlike the previous leaks, the leaking tailings pipe where Cooper died had eroded and created a flooded cavern in a frozen layer of sand underneath, Seetal said.

She added Suncor had never seen caverns develop under leaking tailings pipes before or since the incident.

She could not say whether Cooper had been warned about the earlier problems at the site.

Fine sends the wrong message

Cooper left behind a wife and two children. His widow, Tammy, said she is still too distraught to do an interview, and is haunted by many unanswered questions about the incident.

"I can write a book about my struggles since that day," Tammy told CBC News.

Jerry Cooper and family

Jerry Cooper, 40, is seen in this family photo with his wife Tammy Cooper and their two children, Brayden and Breanna. (CBC)

Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan said a tougher sentence is needed in cases like Cooper's.

"That fine doesn't fit the crime," McGowan said.

"The size of the fine compared to the fact that a life was lost and the company is a multi-billion dollar company, we think it doesn't send the message that we think should be sent about the value of human life."

According to the agreed statement of facts, Cooper had spotted water leaking near a tailings pond near the end of his shift on Jan. 19, 2014 at approximately 5:10 a.m.

He called his supervisor and went to inspect the source of the water.

About an hour later when he hadn't heard an update, the supervisor began searching for Cooper.

Searchers found Cooper's parked car, its door left open and footprints leading to a safety vest near a three- to four-metre hole.

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A scarecrow sits in a tailings pond in front of the Suncor oilsands extraction facility near Fort McMurray, Alberta. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

Emergency services arrived on the scene with excavators and a vacuum truck. Five hours after Cooper went missing, responders found his body in the hole, and his death was blamed on drowning.

Suncor's internal investigation determined a leak in one of its pipelines created the cavern which Cooper fell into.

Since the death, Suncor has established a safety task force that reviewed and developed strategies to avoid similar incidents.

Preventing future deaths

In a June press release announcing the tailings pond safety study, Mark Little, Suncor's president of upstream operations, expressed his sorrow and hopes the company has embarked on the right steps to avoid another death.

"We were heartbroken by Jerry's death and we want to make sure something like this never happens again to another oilsands employee across the industry," Little said.

Suncor office in Fort McMurray

Suncor Energy pleaded guilty in April to one charge of failing to ensure the health and safety of worker Jerry Cooper. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

U of A researcher Lianne Lefsrud expressed her regrets about the death but hopes the study will help prevent similar accidents.

"From this horrible, horrible tragedy, we want to show the family something good [can] come," Lefsrud said. "And ensure this never happens to another worker again."

The study, spearheaded by the David and Joan Lynch School of Engineering Safety and Risk Management, will analyze the early warning signs of hazards and develop guidelines for tailings pond operators.

Tailings ponds are engineered dams and dyke systems that hold a mixture of water, solids and chemicals that remain from oilsands mining after the bitumen is removed. Over a period of time, the solids sink to the bottom and the water is separated and recycled. 

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