No charges to be laid in duck deaths on oilsands tailings pond

The government says there won’t be any charges against two oilsands companies that own tailings ponds in northern Alberta where hundreds of ducks died two years ago.

EDMONTON — The government says there won’t be any charges against two oilsands companies that own tailings ponds in northern Alberta where hundreds of ducks died two years ago.

The Environment Department released a report by a University of Alberta biologist Thursday that said nothing could have been done when an early winter storm in October 2010 forced the birds to land on the toxic waste ponds belonging to Syncrude and Suncor near Fort McMurray. Others landed on nearby roads and parking lots.

More than 550 birds, many of them covered in oily goo, had to be destroyed.

The bird deaths came just days after Syncrude agreed to pay $3 million in penalties after 1,600 ducks died on one of its tailings ponds during a storm two years earlier. Pictures of dead and dying birds flashed around the world and Syncrude was cast by its critics as an environmental pariah.

A report by biologist Colleen Cassady St. Clair from the University of Alberta said strong winds, freezing rain and poor visibility forced the birds to land abruptly.

“The weather during, and especially preceding, the landings included a major storm event with high wind speeds and changing wind directions, exactly the conditions that hinder migration,” she said in her report.

The Crown found that the report’s conclusion as well as evidence gathered by provincial investigators left no reasonable chance of conviction, the government said.

Most of the birds that landed on the ponds died because they became covered in bitumen, while the ones who hit the ground probably died from blunt trauma, St. Clair said.

St. Clair concluded that the event could not have been anticipated by the companies with any kind of “high precision or accuracy based on prior knowledge of causation.”

St. Clair offered 10 recommendations on how to prevent mortalities. They include not building any more tailings ponds within 3 1/2 kilometres of the Athabasca River and reassessing the position of artificial lights so as not to confuse birds.

Alberta Environment says a number of improvements have been implemented.

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