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Syncrude president and CEO Tom Katinas speaks to reporters in Edmonton Tuesday, apologizing for the bird deaths, which he called a 'stain' on his company's good reputation. ((CBC))

Three times as many ducks died in a northern Alberta tailings pond last year than the 500 originally estimated, Syncrude Canada announced Tuesday.

"We can now tell you that the final number is 1,606 birds," Syncrude president and CEO Tom Katinas said.

In late April 2008, migrating ducks landed on a tailings pond on Syncrude's Aurora oilsands site. 

The company failed to deploy the air cannons it uses to scare the birds away because of severe winter weather. The ducks landed on the open water and sank to the bottom of the lake after they were coated in oil.

Initial estimates pegged the deaths at 500 birds, but in the weeks after the incident more birds came to the surface. Staff counted and reported the numbers to the government as part of the investigation.

Since those numbers were considered part of the investigation, they could not be publicly released until now, Katinas said.

When the company appeared in court last week in Fort McMurray, it sought and was granted permission from the Crown prosecutors to release the numbers due to the length of time that had passed and speculation about the numbers

Syncrude faces one charge under the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act and one charge under the federal Migratory Birds Convention Act in relation to the duck deaths. 

"I want to apologize for this terribly sad event that happened on our site. It is a stain on the good reputation that Syncrude has earned over its many years of good operations," Katinas said.

"It's been particularly sad and embarrassing for me, personally, for the employees of Syncrude and for all the stakeholders in this great company of ours."

No new charges

Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner, who is in Washington D.C., said Syncrude will not face any additional provincial charges even though the number of dead ducks has tripled. 

Syncrude has known about the higher numbers since July but Renner said he didn't know about the total until the company made its announcement Tuesday morning.

"As the investigation proceeded, I was kept aware by my staff involved in the investigation that the number of birds effected was going to be larger than what was originally reported," he said.  "However, I did not know what the total was going to be."

Today's announcement  provoked criticism from environmental groups.

"It leaves a lot of questions around the transparency of the industry — you know, why did it take almost a year for the company to release these type of numbers?"  asked Mike Hudema, the Edmonton-based campaigner for Greenpeace.

Jay Custer, of the Sierra Club of Canada, called the numbers "very significant" and said it calls into question how well the government monitors oilsands companies and enforces its own legislation.

"It can't be taking a year to do this," he said.

New deterrent measures

Syncrude's Katinas announced the numbers at a news conference in Edmonton where he also discussed some of the improved deterrent techniques Syncrude will be using this spring, but Custer said he thinks these measures do little to address the larger issues.

"We don't think it's enough because the issue of the toxic tailings lakes is not being addressed,"  he said.

Some of Syncrude's new measures include deploying deterrents year-round on ponds that don't freeze during the winter; increasing the number of air cannons by 30 per cent and deploying them well in advance of the start of spring migration.

This year, Syncrude started using its air cannons in mid-February, Katinas said.