Canadian Tar Sands Company Found Guilty in Deaths of Over 1,600 Waterfoul Sets International Example in Prosecuting Bird Deaths Due to Industry Negligence


Canadian Geese

Canada Geese. Photo: FWS

(Washington, D.C., July 15, 2010) A Canadian judge has found Syncrude Canada, Ltd. guilty in the deaths of over 1,600 waterfoul that landed in the tar sands company’s Aurura Mine toxic tailings ponds in Alberta on April 28, 2008.

At the conclusion of the nine-week trial, Alberta Provincial Judge Ken Tjosvold determined that Syncrude, which is Canada’s largest tar sands oil producer, did not have adequate bird deterrents in place and was therefore in violation of the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act. The company was also found to be in violation of the federal Migratory Birds Convention Act for depositing a harmful substance in places frequented by migratory birds. This Act is the Canadian counterpart to the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act, both of which resulted from an international treaty between the two countries, and which makes it illegal to kill a migratory bird – even if unintentionally – without a permit.

“In prosecuting Syncrude under the Migratory Birds Convention Act, the Canadian government has sent a clear message that reaches beyond the scope of this one case and beyond the country’s borders; namely the unregulated killing of migratory birds by industry is not to be accepted,” said American Bird Conservancy President George Fenwick. “The United States would do well to follow Canada’s leading example in situations where mass mortality of migratory birds results from industry actions. Financial penalties should be used to help repair habitat and undertake other critical actions to help birds affected by such incidents. Particularly egregious examples can be found in the case of ongoing bird deaths at wind farms, and in the deaths of pelicans, boobies, and other birds that have resulted from the Gulf Coast oil spill.”

In a 2009 case that has some similarities, Exxon was found guilty and fined $600,000 for causing the deaths of 85 birds that mostly died from exposure to natural gas well reserve pits and waste water structures. The deaths occurred over a five year period in Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Wyoming and Texas.

In the trial, Syncrude asserted that severe snowstorms prevented them from having proper bird deterrents, such as sound canons and scarecrows, operational around the waste ponds. Judge Tjosvold disagreed, saying that evidence pointed to Syncrude actually reducing the number of deterrents it employed as well as cutting back on scarecrows and employee training. He said “[Syncrude] could have set up its systems to place deterrents sooner and more quickly regardless of the weather that arrived in April 2008. It was reasonable to take those precautions and Syncrude did not.”

“The courts rejected Syncrude’s ‘the dog ate my homework’ excuse and determined that they and not the weather are responsible for this wildlife tragedy. It is my hope that the sentencing phase sends a signal that such industry indifference toward wildlife will not be tolerated,” said George Fenwick, President of American Bird Conservancy.

The company will face sentencing in August with maximum penalties set at C$300,000 (about $289,000 US) for federal charges and C$500,000 (about $482,000 US) for provincial charges. It remains to be decided if the company can be charged under both laws since the statutes are very similar.

This case is particularly significant because Canada has enormous oil sands reserves that provide a source of crude oil second in volume only to the Middle East. The process of separating the oil, however, produces billions of gallons of toxic waste water tainted with residual oil and heavy metals that must be stored in open. Birds, particularly waterfowl, see the ponds and try to land on them, becoming poisoned or drowning in the viscous surface residues.