Images show dead ducks in Syncrude pond

Dramatic pictures and video of ducks struggling in a toxic waste pond were released Tuesday at Syncrude's trial on environmental charges in the deaths of 1,606 ducks in April 2008.
A duck is shown struggling in a Syncrude tailings pond in an April 2008 video that was submitted as evidence at the oilsands' company's trial in St. Albert, Alta., Tuesday. ((Government of Alberta))
Dramatic pictures and video of ducks struggling in a toxic waste pond were released Tuesday at Syncrude's trial on environmental charges in the deaths of 1,606 ducks in a tailings pond in northern Alberta almost two years ago.

On Tuesday, William Todd Powell, a senior wildlife biologist for the Alberta government, testified in a St. Albert courtroom about the video footage he took on his arrival at the pond shortly after the province learned about the duck deaths on April 28, 2008.

In one video, a male duck struggles to get out of the bitumen-covered lake. Powell testified there was nothing that could be done to save the bird, so wildlife officials used a shotgun to put it out of its misery.

About a dozen other ducks were euthanized in the same manner that day, Powell said.

During his testimony, Powell showed about 100 pictures of birds on the 12-square-kilometre pond, birds on the shore coated in oil and workers clad in haz-mat suits trying to wash ducks in a cleaning bay on the site. One picture depicted two dead Canada geese in the tailings pond.

One of more than 1,600 ducks that eventually died after landing in a tailings pond. ((Government of Alberta))
In another series of photos, the court was shown images of two ravens killing and scavenging the remains of an oil-covered duck that was trapped in the bitumen.

Outside court, Syncrude lawyer Robert White questioned the motives behind the taking of the photos, which he described as "showboating" and an exercise in simply proving that bitumen is "bad for ducks."

"Why not put that poor thing out its misery and shoot it?" White asked reporters. "They were far more interested in bringing photographs of that poor thing being eaten alive, which makes me sick to my stomach to think of, than they were of looking after the suffering of that animal."

Syncrude officials said previously that an early winter storm prevented the company from putting its waterfowl deterrents in place. In his testimony, Powell confirmed there were no air cannons in operation on the day he arrived on site, but he told the court he saw very little snow on the ground.

Syncrude lawyer Robert White said photographs of two ravens killing a duck trapped in bitumen were the result of 'showboating' by provincial officials. ((CBC))
It will be weeks before Syncrude is able to present its case at the trial. According to White, the company believes it made a mistake but didn't commit a crime. He said the court will eventually hear evidence that shows that the deaths of the ducks were due to circumstances that had never been seen before.

"Something happened that day," he said. "I know what it is and as the evidence unfolds, you'll know what it is too, and it could happen again."

Syncrude faces one count under Section 155 of the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act for failing to provide appropriate waterfowl deterrents at the pond.

The company has also been charged with one count under 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.

Syncrude has pleaded not guilty to both charges. The trial is expected to last six to nine weeks and is being heard before a provincial court judge.

With files from John Archer