Syncrude pleads not guilty to duck death charges

Oilsands giant Syncrude pleaded not guilty Monday to two charges laid in the deaths of 1,600 ducks in a northern Alberta tailings pond in April 2008.
Lawyer Robert White, shown here outside the courthouse in St. Albert Monday, is representing Syncrude in the case. (CBC)
Oilsands giant Syncrude has pleaded not guilty to two charges laid in the deaths of 1,600 ducks in a northern Alberta tailings pond in April 2008.

The company faces charges under provincial and federal laws. Syncrude's lawyer, Robert White, entered the pleas in a court in St. Albert, northwest of Edmonton, Monday morning. 

Two months have been set for the trial, which will start in March in St. Albert.

According to White, the company is pleading not guilty because it has improved duck deterrence measures used at the site.  He dismissed a suggestion that Syncrude thinks that it should be above the law.

"Of course not," he said. "However, the law has recognized for a long time that when people do their best to avoid something, then that isn't a matter for charges. That's a matter for fix-up."

Crown prosecutor Kent Brown spoke to reporters Monday outside the courthouse in St. Albert, Alta. (CBC)
Syncrude has also expressed regret for the incident many times and has learned from it, White said. The company now uses a radar system to detect birds that may be migrating early, and uses noise-making deterrents like air cannons year-round.

Crown prosecutor Kent Brown said while he was pleased to hear the company has taken steps to ensure this type of incident doesn't happen again, the case needs to proceed.

"The prosecution in our view is still necessary because I don't think the public would be accepting of the fact that they've simply made some changes and said, 'Well that's good enough,'" he said.

In late April 2008, migrating ducks landed on a tailings pond on Syncrude's Aurora oilsands site near Fort McMurray. The ducks landed on the open water and sank to the bottom of the lake after they were coated in oil.

Syncrude said it had failed to deploy the air cannons it normally uses to scare the birds away because of severe winter weather.

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, but the revised total was not released until March 2009.