October 26, 2010 3:28 pm

Report of more dead waterfowl at Syncrude pond: Alberta government

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EDMONTON – More birds have landed on gooey, toxic Syncrude tailings ponds in Alberta’s oilsands, just days after the oil giant agreed to pay more than $3 million for a similar incident that killed 1,600 ducks in 2008.

"It’s discouraging in the extreme," Environment Minister Rob Renner said Tuesday after announcing the province is on scene and will investigate.

"I thought we had moved the agenda significantly forward so that this kind of incident would be minimized, but the fact of the matter is that we are now dealing with what appears to be a similar incident.

"The timing," he added, "obviously, couldn’t be worse."

Renner said the birds landed on Syncrude’s Mildred Lake settling basin on Monday night and that Syncrude called to notify the government.

He said the number and status of the birds is unknown, but some are heavily oiled and recovery operations are underway.

"I’m not going to engage in speculation in numbers," said Renner. He said the reason for the landings is not known, though he said it’s possible the birds were forced to ground by freezing rain.

He said he wants answers on what happened with the deterrents, which include noise cannons aimed at frightening the birds off.

"Our understanding is the deterrent system is in place. We’ll leave it up to the investigators to determine whether or not it was operating."

Syncrude officials were not immediately available for comment.

Federal NDP environment critic Linda Duncan, who is also an Edmonton MP, said the time has come to shut down the tailings ponds, which contain effluent from oilsands operations.

"This is reprehensible," said Duncan in a phone interview from Ottawa. "It makes a mockery of the (recent) conviction.

"No amount of penalty or donation to a large institution will prevent this from continuing to happen."

Mike Hudema of the environmental activist group Greenpeace said the latest incident proves nothing has changed.

"Syncrude needs more than a slap on the wrist and this government needs to do more than just being the public relations firm for the tarsands industry," said Hudema.

"The minister of the environment needs to stop being disappointed and start actually getting mad and regulating these companies."

That last prosecution against Syncrude was a two-year legal odyssey that wrapped up Friday with the $3-million penalty.

A judge found Syncrude guilty on June 25 of breaking provincial and federal wildlife laws when it failed to stop birds from landing on its Aurora tailings pond in April 2008.

Images of the tar-fouled and suffering ducks flashed around the world and became a focal point for oilsands critics.

Syncrude’s lawyer argued during the trial that the company was caught off guard because of a late-spring snowstorm that left the birds with nowhere to land but the tailings pond.

But court also heard that Syncrude was having problems with its bird deterrence program and was two weeks behind in setting up air cannons and scarecrows.

After the sentence was handed down, Syncrude said it would work to regain the public’s trust.

The home page of Syncrude Canada’s website makes no mention of Monday’s incident but shows a picture of two birds flying beside the words, "We have enhanced our waterfowl protection program with additional resources and revised protocols."

The $3-million penalty, a joint recommendation from both Crown and Syncrude lawyers, consisted of a $500,000 provincial fine and a $300,000 federal levy. Both are the maximum allowed under law.

Another $1.3 million was to go toward research at the University of Alberta on how better to keep birds away from oilsands operations.

Another $900,000 was to go toward the purchase of almost 25 hectares of wetlands east of Edmonton considered crucial migratory bird habitat, including eight kilometres of shoreline. The area, on a major North American flyway, is to be managed by conservation groups.

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