350 Ducks Die at Canadian Oil Facility Company Recently Fined for Past Bird Mortality Incidents

Northern Pintail. By: Bill Hubick.
Northern Pintail. By: Bill Hubick

Just three days after Canadian tar sands company Syncrude Canada Ltd. had agreed to pay a record high fine of almost $3.0 million (Canadian) as a result of the deaths of more than 1,600 ducks at their facility in April 2008, 350 more dead ducks were discovered in a tailings pond at the company’s Mildred Lake Settling Basin north of Fort McMurray in Alberta Canada.


“The deaths of almost 2,000 birds in two separate incidents involving the same company is greatly disturbing, but perhaps more troubling is that the cause of the first event was widely felt to be the failure of the company to deploy adequate avian deterrents to keep birds out of the toxic tailing ponds. The company, however, asserts that deterrents were fully in place in the most recent incident, calling into question whether such tailings ponds should be allowed at all, since it doesn’t seem that they can be made environmentally safe,” said Darin Schroeder, Vice President for Conservation Advocacy for American Bird Conservancy, the leading bird conservation group in the United States.


The $3.0 million fine, which was a record high settlement for an environmental case in Alberta, was negotiated by the province and Syncrude Canada, and far exceeded the prescribed maximums in the two applicable laws. Syncrude will pay the maximum fine of C$300,000 under Canada’s Migratory Birds Conservation Act (the Canadian equivalent of the U.S. migratory Bird Treaty Act), the maximum C$500,000 under Alberta’s Environmental Protection Act, and an additional C$ 2.2 million for research and conservation projects in mitigation for the bird deaths.


Weather appears to have been a key contributing factor in the recent deaths as both government and corporate officials have cited freezing rains causing the birds to become exhausted, forcing them to land in spite of the deterrents.


These incidents are 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 wastewater tainted with residual oil and heavy metals that is stored in open pits. Birds, particularly waterfowl, see the ponds and try to land on them, becoming poisoned or drowning in the viscous surface residues.