File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS A highway loops around a tailings pond at the Syncrude facility as seen from a helicopter tour of the oil sands near Fort McMurray, Alta. Syncrude has agreed to plead guilty and pay $2.75 million in fines over the deaths of 31 great blue herons at its Mildred Lake oilsands mine north of Fort McMurray. The birds were found dead or dying in 2015 near a pump house at an abandoned sump pond.

Syncrude to pay over $2.7M to settle charges in Alberta blue heron deaths

FORT MCMURRAY — Syncrude has pleaded guilty and been fined more than $2.7 million in the deaths of 31 great blue herons at one of its oilsands mines north of Fort McMurray.

An agreed statement of facts says Syncrude has admitted that an abandoned sump pond in which the birds were found didn’t have deterrents to keep waterfowl from landing on it, even though the pond met criteria for being high risk.

“For a three-month period between May and August of 2015, the external sump met the formal criteria … and presented features making it attractive to birds and other animals,” the statement says.

“However, the external sump was not identified in the (pond) list produced by Syncrude for the purposes of monitoring … nor was it addressed pursuant to the (waterfowl protection plan).”

The pond at Syncrude’s Mildred Lake mine was at one time more than a kilometre long, 400 metres wide and eight metres deep. Although it had been partially drained and was dry in some years, Syncrude had been unable to completely remediate the pond and it continued to hold liquids, solids and bitumen.

The statement says the birds weren’t found until a contract employee stumbled upon them while looking for a shortcut from one part of the site to another.

“The monitor saw a great blue heron in the sump lying down,” it says. “(Syncrude staff) recovered the live oiled heron and discovered 30 more heron carcasses.”

Staff also found a heron rookery with 26 nests about 300 metres away as well as evidence that other animals had been in the area.

“Agreeing to pay a significant fine reflects the depth of our remorse about this incident,” said Syncrude spokesman Will Gibson. ”Our top priority was understanding what was the cause of this incident.”

Fencing and bird deterrents were installed immediately and all ponds have since been brought under Syncrude’s plan to keep wildlife away from toxic materials at its mine, says the statement.

The sump pond has been completely drained at a cost of $16 million.

Provincial environmental charges accounted for $975,000 of the total penalty. Of that, $950,000 is to go into a fund administered by the Alberta Energy Regulator and earmarked for projects that increase wildlife habitat or reclaim land.

The rest of the penalty, nearly $1.8 million, resulted from federal charges under the Migratory Birds Act. That money will go to the Environmental Damages Fund, a federally administered conservation fund.

In 2010, Syncrude was fined $3 million after more than 1,600 ducks died when they landed on a tailings pond. That same year, more than 550 birds had to be killed when an early winter storm forced them to land on waste ponds belonging to Syncrude and Suncor Energy.

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