ST. ALBERT — Syncrude Canada says it will focus on gaining the public’s trust after being ordered to pay $3 million in penalties for causing the deaths of 1,600 ducks in a tailings pond at its northern Alberta oilsands mine.
“It has been very difficult on our employees and we are in the process now of rebuilding our reputation,” company spokeswoman Cheryl Robb said outside provincial court Friday after Judge Ken Tjosvold delivered the sentence.
“We want Canadians to know that we care, that we can produce a resource in an environmentally responsible way.”
Syncrude was found guilty on June 25 of breaking provincial and federal wildlife laws when it failed to stop the birds from landing on its toxic waste pond in April 2008. Images of the tar-fouled and suffering ducks flashed around the world and became a focal point for oilsands critics.
The penalty, a joint recommendation from both Crown and Syncrude lawyers, consists of a $500,000 provincial fine and a $300,000 federal levy. Both are the maximum allowed under law.
Another $1.3 million will fund research at the University of Alberta on how better to keep birds away from oilsands operations. Syncrude will be obliged to follow its recommendations, which will be made public. Implementation will be monitored by an independent committee.
Another $900,000 will 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, will be managed by conservation groups.
Half of the provincial fine will be used to help develop an environmental monitoring diploma program at Keyano College in Fort McMurray.
Mike Hudema of Greenpeace, which originally brought a private prosecution against Syncrude that was taken over by the Crown, said the sentence isn’t likely to provide much of a deterrent.
“These are things the industry should have been doing from the very beginning. (This) should be provincial legislation, not something that the court is forcing Syncrude to do,” said Hudema.
“What this amounts to is a $3-million fine, and a $3-million fine to a multibillion-dollar company equates to a slap on the wrist.”
Syncrude’s lawyer argued during the trial that the company was caught off-guard because of a late-spring snowstorm that left the ducks with nowhere to land but on the tailings pond. Oilsands companies are obliged by both provincial and federal legislation to take measures to keep migratory birds away from waste-water ponds, which contain a poisonous brew of water, clay, leftover bitumen and heavy metals.
But court heard that Syncrude was having problems with its bird deterrence program and was two weeks behind in setting up air cannons and scarecrows meant to drive the ducks away.
On Friday, provincial prosecutor Susan McRory reminded the judge of how inadequate Syncrude’s precautions were.
“This is not a situation where Syncrude just missed the mark. Syncrude fell far below the duty of care.”
Syncrude lawyer Jack Marshall admitted as much.
“Syncrude has publicly expressed its deep regret it failed to take adequate measures to protect wildfowl. Today, it apologizes to the court.
“Syncrude can and must do better.”
The federal government was quick to weigh in.
“This significant result and award demonstrates our government’s ongoing commitment to enforce federal environmental regulations in the oilsands,” Environment Minister Jim Prentice said in a news release.
“We will continue to work with all levels of governments to protect migratory birds and the environment.”
Testimony during the trial indicated that even after Syncrude got going on its deterrence, its seven-member team couldn’t do much. Their boats were out of service and they had one truck to deliver all the equipment. They managed to get eight cannons around the pond, compared with 130 the year before.
The storm dumped almost 40 centimetres of snow in the area. The birds died because they could not escape the thick black goo. They were eaten alive by ravens or sank like stones to the bottom.
Syncrude says it has taken steps to minimize the chance of something similar happening again. Deterrence measures now operate year round.