Syncrude charged in deaths of 31 great blue herons at oilsands mine

The Alberta Energy Regulator has charged Syncrude Canada in the deaths of 31 great blue herons discovered at a sump at the Mildred Lake mine north of Fort McMurray.

Oilsands giant faces maximum penalty of $500,000 for incident two years ago

The Alberta Energy Regulator charged Syncrude with the death of 30 blue herons at the Syncrude Canada Mildred Lake oilsands mine site north of Fort McMurray. (Canadian Press/The Interior/Wiki Creative Commons)

The Alberta Energy Regulator has charged Syncrude Canada in the deaths of 31 great blue herons discovered at a pond at the Mildred Lake mine north of Fort McMurray two years ago.

The company is charged with failing to store a hazardous substance to ensure it does not come into contact or contaminate animals, according to a news release from the regulator. The charges were laid under the Environment Protection and Enhancement Act.

Syncrude spokesperson Will Gibson said the oilsands company is "truly saddened and deeply regrets" the death of the birds that occurred in an inactive part of the mine.

"Our goal is to prevent the deaths of birds and other wildlife as a result of our operations," Gibson said. "We have already taken steps to address this after consulting with wildlife industry experts."

Canons, strobe lights, radar

Gibson said Syncrude has made changes to its waterfowl protection plan, not just at tailings facilities after similar incidents, but also on other bodies of water.

The changes include installing strobe lights, scarecrows, noise devices and a radar-based deterrence that activates propane-fired noise canons when birds approach.

There's also a central bird-monitoring and control centre with year-round staffing, especially during known bird migration times.

"We know the public expects our industry to provide energy in a responsible way," Gibson said. "We are committed to responsible development."

Syncrude faces a maximum fine of $500,000. It is scheduled to appear in court in Fort McMurray on Sept. 27.

The incident was reported to the AER on Aug. 7, 2015.

Fine fair or fowl?

Environmentalists are praising the charges, but some say the fine still doesn't fit the crime.

"How many times do incidents like this need to occur before we see stronger action from the government said Greenpeace spokesperson Mike Hudema. "That's a fine Syncrude can pay-off in a couple of hours worth of profits."

Cleo Desjarlais Reece, co-chair of the Keepers of the Athabasca Watershed Society, welcomed the charges.

"I am really happy," Desjarlais Reece said. "We have great concerns about our wildlife, about our birds and our water."​

One of hundreds of ducks that landed on a Syncrude tailings pond on April 28, 2008. (Government of Alberta)

Syncrude was fined $3 million when more than 1,600 ducks died after landing on a tailings pond in 2008.

In October 2010, more than 550 birds died or had to be killed when an early winter storm forced them to land on waste ponds belonging to Syncrude and Suncor.

In November 2015, 122 birds were killed after landing on three tailings ponds in the area, including one at Mildred Lake. 

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