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The Globe and Mail (Canada)

Syncrude Triples Number of Dead Ducks From Oil Sands

Nathan Vanderklippe

A female Mallard duck is gets its bill cleaned of oil in April, 2008, after being transported from the Syncrude tailings pond at their tar sands site near Fort McMurray, Alta. (The Canadian Press)

Calgary - The number of ducks that died in a tailings pond at the Syncrude oil sands mine is more than three times as high as first estimated.

A total of 1,606 ducks died in April last year, many of them after they dove into a pond containing bitumen and drowned north of Fort McMurray, Alta., Syncrude president and chief executive officer Tom Katinas said in a news conference Tuesday morning. The company initially said only 500 died.

Mr. Katinas called it an "extremely sad event" that occurred when the ducks landed on the Aurora settling basin, which was one of the few areas of open water in an unusually cold spring.

He outlined a number of measures the mine is taking to prevent a similar occurrence from happening this year, including a 30-per-cent increase in the number of noise cannons. The company will now employ 190 cannons, and "the noise generated from these cannons will be monitored. And some of it will be directed to the sky, so we'll measure the decibel rating as well," Mr. Katinas said.

The dead ducks were discovered April 28, 2008. Mr. Katinas said Syncrude, in conjunction with Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, made an initial estimate of 500 dead, based on the numbers they observed at the pond. However, many of the ducks had already drowned by that time, and were not visible from the surface. As they decomposed, they came floating back to the surface over subsequent months, he said.

"I really don't know what to expect from the public," he said as he disclosed the new tally. "I can only tell you how we feel. We felt very badly about 500 in the first place. I don't believe that as badly as we felt, you could feel three times worse than we did. But we do feel badly."

The incident last year caused Syncrude international embarrassment and provoked a flurry of environmental criticism of the oil sands.

Last month, Alberta and Ottawa charged Syncrude with breaking environmental laws.

The energy giant could face fines of up to $800,000 if convicted under provincial and federal environmental legislation.

Under the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, Syncrude could be fined up to $500,000 for failing to ensure that "a person who keeps, stores or transports a hazardous substance or pesticide shall do so in a manner that ensures that the hazardous substance does not directly or indirectly come into contact with or contaminate any animals, plants, food or drink."

Syncrude also has been charged federally under the Migratory Birds Convention Act for "allegedly depositing or permitting the deposit of a substance harmful to migratory birds in waters or an area frequented by birds." The maximum penalty is $300,000.

The charges are the first of their kind against an oil sands company. They come as Alberta and Canada attempt to promote the resource as a safe, secure supply of energy at the same time as environmentalists are waging a "dirty oil" campaign against the so-called tar sands.

On April 28, 2008, the birds were found dead or dying in a toxic soup located along a migratory route for hundreds of thousands of waterfowl. Alberta requires effective bird deterrence by energy producers, but at the time, Syncrude explained that a spring snowstorm prevented the company from erecting noisemakers around the massive pond to scare away flocks.

Syncrude spokesman Alain Moore said at the time the company was charged that this was the first time anything like this has occurred in the decades the company has been operating in the region.

"We feel horrible it happened. There's a huge resolve in our organization to make appropriate changes to prevent it from happening again," he said.

With files from reporter Dawn Walton

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