Ottawa, Alberta charge Syncrude in oilsands pond duck deaths
Syncrude Canada has been charged for not taking measures to keep wildfowl out of the tailings pond where 500 ducks died last year after they were trapped in the water's oily waste, the Alberta government announced Monday.
The province has charged the oilsands company with one count under Section 155 of the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act for failing to provide appropriate wildfowl deterrents at the pond at the Aurora North Site in April 2008
"I don't know that circumstances such as this have ever happened," Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner said Monday. "This is the first of its kind for charges to be laid in this manner in Alberta."
The maximum penalty under this section of the legislation is $500,000.
Syncrude is also facing a charge under the Migratory Birds Convention Act, Environment Canada announced Monday.
The company is charged with one count under subsection 5.1(1) of the act, for allegedly depositing or permitting the deposit of a substance harmful to migratory birds in waters or an area frequented by birds.
The maximum penalty for the federal charge is a $300,000 fine and/or six months imprisonment.
Both charges will be prosecuted jointly, Renner said.
Syncrude is scheduled to appear in provincial court in Fort McMurray on March 25.
The ducks were migrating last spring when they landed on the open water of the pond, which is filled with waste from Syncrude's oilsands operation north of Fort McMurray.
Most of the birds died after they became too heavily coated with oil and waste to fly.
At the time, Syncrude officials said the company normally deploys deterrents like scarecrows and noisemakers on the three-kilometre-wide lake to prevent migrating birds from landing on the water, but implementation was delayed last April due to harsh winter weather conditions.
The company regrets what happened and plans to be ready for when the birds start migrating this spring, Syncrude spokesperson Alain Moore said Monday.
"Everyone in our organization felt horrible this happened last spring," he said. "We have a lot of resolve and focus in our organization to make the appropriate changes to help it from happening again."
The provincial and federal governments had been criticized by environmental groups for the length of the investigation.
But Alberta Justice Minister Alison Redford said the legislation allows investigations to take a maximum of two years, and investigators had to ensure there was enough evidence to mount an effective prosecution.
"That takes more than simply looking at the face of the charges or the face of the circumstances," she said. " We needed to go into the detail to make sure we had enough to lay the charges."
"We have an obligation to enforce our legislation," Renner said. "If we believe that there has been an infraction committed under our legislation, I think we have an obligation not only to the environment but to the public and to the credibility of our system if we don't lay charges."
While word of the charges was welcomed by some, critics questioned whether the maximum fines faced by Syncrude are enough of a deterrent.
"It's just not good enough — $500,000 is not a deterrent," said Alberta NDP MLA Rachel Notley.
"We will not see changes in how our natural resources are managed by private sector companies exploiting them. We need an environmental structure in place that is truly committed to deterring bad practice and to protecting our environment as best possible. And the act that we have in place right now will not achieve that outcome, and nor, frankly, will the announcement today."