Syncrude duck death trial underway

Oilsands giant Syncrude returned to court Monday for its trial in the deaths of 1,600 ducks in a northern Alberta tailings pond in April 2008.

Case could set precedent for tailings-pond operations

One of five ducks rescued from an oilsands tailings pond near Fort McMurray, Alta., was taken to a wildlife rehabilitation centre outside Edmonton for treatment.

Oilsands giant Syncrude returned to court Monday for its trial in the deaths of 1,600 ducks in a northern Alberta tailings pond in April 2008.

Dozens of binders full of background material were stacked on tables and cabinets in the St. Albert, Alta., courtroom. Prosecutors say it could take months to get through the evidence. Two months have been set aside for the trial.

Syncrude is facing charges under federal and provincial laws. The Crown alleges the oilsands operator was negligent and failed in its duty to protect migratory birds.

However, Syncrude lawyer Robert White said the incident was just a mistake.

"There's no question that the settling basin and its contents was the reason that these birds died and there is no question at all but that the settling basin is Syncrude's responsibility and is morally culpable, but they are not guilty of criminal offences," he said.

White also said the prosecution should proceed on one charge. He argued the federal and provincial charges overlap and the company is unfairly being tried for multiple convictions for one incident.

During the first week of the trial, the Crown plans to call as witnesses the first responders after the ducks landed on the pond.

Tailings ponds on trial, environmentalist says

The Crown also plans to call scientists to testify about what is in the tailings ponds and how harmful it is to wildlife.

The Crown is expected to establish what the industry standards are and what other companies do to avoid these types of incidents.

Sierra Club Prairie director Lindsay Telfer says the case has become a symbol for what's wrong with the oilsands. ((CBC))

Speaking outside the courthouse Monday, Sierra Club Prairie director Lindsay Telfer said the case goes far beyond the ducks, and the "tailings ponds themselves are on trial."

"I think that this incident specifically showed the world just how toxic the tailings ponds are," she said. "We know now that the waters have killed 1,600 ducks, we know that those waters are leaking into the Athabasca [River] and we know downstream communities have significant health problems."

Telfer said the government needs to hold companies like Syncrude responsible.

"This case specifically has skyrocketed the tarsands into the international global spotlight and I think it will continue to do so."

Defence asks judge to consider recusal

The trial was briefly delayed Monday morning when White filed a motion requesting the judge consider removing himself from the case. White said provincial court Judge Ken Tjosveld used to be a senior Alberta Crown prosecutor and worked with prosecutors now involved in the trial.

White said he didn't believe Tjosveld was biased, but he argued it was important there be no perception of bias.

Tjosveld dismissed the application.

Lawyer Robert White, left, is representing Syncrude in the trial over the ducks that died in the tailings pond. ((CBC))

The 1,600 migrating ducks landed in the northern Alberta tailings pond north of Fort McMurray in April 2008. They sank to the bottom after being coated in toxic sludge.

Air cannons employed to scare migratory birds away from the tailings pond were not in place.

The company doesn't dispute the ducks perished in the tailings pond, but says charges won't accomplish anything.

Syncrude also says it did everything it could to keep birds away from the tailings pond. The company says a late winter storm prevented it from putting bird deterrents in place, and the birds migrated earlier than usual.

Environmentalists and observers from the oil industry are watching the trial closely because it could set a precedent for tailings-pond operators.

The federal charge against Syncrude falls under the Migratory Birds Convention Act. The law is generally applied only to hunters and companies that dump hazardous chemicals or oil into the water. It has never been applied to a tailings pond operator.

If found guilty, Syncrude could face fines of up to $800,000.


  • The maximum penalty faced by Syncrude, if convicted, is $800,000, not $1 million as was initially reported.
    Mar 02, 2010 6:55 AM MT