Oilsands giant Syncrude found guilty in deaths of 1,600 ducks

ST. ALBERT, Alta. – A judge has found oilsands giant Syncrude Canada guilty on federal and provincial charges stemming from the deaths of more than 1,600 ducks at a toxic waste pond in northern Alberta two years ago.

Provincial court Judge Ken Tjosvold issued his ruling Friday, bringing to a close the legal phase of one of the biggest public humiliations Canada’s oilsands have suffered, the now infamous "duck incident."

The energy company was charged with failing to prevent the deaths of 1,603 ducks that landed on the company’s 12-square-kilometre tailings, or waste, pond near the Aurora mine north of Fort McMurray, on April 28, 2008.

The judge ruled that Syncrude did not take reasonable steps to deter the ducks from landing on the pond.

Syncrude had been charged under the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act for failing to prevent hazardous substances from coming into contact with wildlife. It was also charged under the federal Migratory Birds Convention Act for depositing a harmful substance in waters or an area frequented by migratory birds.

The incident made headlines around the world and photos of oil-drenched ducks were a public-relations nightmare for Canada’s already controversial oilsands industry.

The Crown argued in its closing arguments that Syncrude failed to heed warnings from its own staff nearly two weeks before the incident that migratory birds were arriving in the region and that bird-deterrent apparatus should be deployed.

However, Syncrude argued during the trial – which stretched more than eight weeks – that the company couldn’t have foreseen the region would be hit by the second heaviest snowfall in 60 years or that a sudden rise in temperature would turn the area surrounding the Aurora settling basin into quicksand.

Syncrude insisted it had done nothing unlawful. Its lawyer, Robert White, argued the use of tailings ponds has long been in violation of federal law protecting migratory birds and that a loss for Syncrude in court could force the entire oilsands industry to shut down.

Statements of Syncrude employees that were filed in court suggested the company’s bird-deterrent team was understaffed and ill-equipped to place the cannons around and on the area. Employees complained they only had one truck to transport the devices and none of the company boats were available.

There’s no word yet on a sentence. Syncrude faces possible fines of $800,000 and a possible six-month jail term, although the Crown has indicated it will not seek jail time for company executives.

Judge Tjosvold suggested that, for the purposes of sentencing, he might consider the convictions on the federal and provincial charges to be a single conviction.

Greenpeace has said the trial exposed gaping holes in the regulatory process and highlighted insufficient enforcement and monitoring of oilsands operations.

Speaking outside court Friday, Greenpeace spokesman Mike Hudema praised the ruling, but called it a small step in the fight to force Alberta to confront the environmental legacy of oilsands mining.

"It’s good that Syncrude has finally been found guilty but they and the (provincial) government still have a lot to answer for before we can say justice has been served," he said.

"Toxic tailing lakes that now comprise over 170 square kilometres of our province will continue to grow, poisoning the landscape, wildlife and downstream communities and all Syncrude has to do is pay a fine. I wouldn’t say that we’ve found much justice, would you?

"This isn’t just about the ducks, it is about health and protecting people and communities, now and for future generations from these toxic industries."

Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach has said his government is moving to phase out the use of tailings ponds by passing regulations requiring oilsands companies to reduce the amount of liquid tailings they produce when they extract bitumen from the oilsands.

"The industry knows very clearly that even with the new tailings ponds that have been approved, it’s not a question if we will go to dry tailings ponds, it’s a question of when," he said. "Technology is advancing and we’re moving directly there. And I know that industry will be on-side."

With files from Global News