Saturday, June 26, 2010

Verdict in Syncrude Duck Deaths Case

In April 2008, over 1,600 waterfowl died in an oil tailings pond managed by Syncrude in Alberta. The tailings are a toxic by-product of the processes used to separate bitumen from the ground. This spring Syncrude was tried violations of Canadian law in connection with the waterfowl deaths, and yesterday it was convicted of violating Alberta's Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act and the federal Migratory Birds Convention Act.
Oil companies operating tailings ponds, which are licensed by the province, are required to have bird deterrent programs including scare cannons, effigies and other tactics such as shiny, reflective kite-like objects to ward off the birds, which include local and migratory flocks. While other companies had their deterrent programs up and running in early April, as prosecutors alleged was customary, Syncrude's wasn't yet operational....

The interview with Mr. Matthews suggests the company took its bird deterrent program less seriously year after year. In the late 1990s, its bird team had about 13 people and would typically start on the first or second week of April, Mr. Matthews said. But in 2008, when the birds were found, the company had eight staff who didn't start until the 14th, at the earliest, and were led by Mr. Matthews who, while a long-time employee, did not have wildlife training. Many of the eight staff were further delayed by payroll issues and a funeral, according to testimony. Meanwhile, the team only had one pickup truck of its customary four, due to a shortage of rental vehicles in booming Fort McMurray and the fact that they'd lent one out, Mr. Matthews said....

Mr. Matthews and his team also had advance notice, at least 11 days before the grim discovery, that birds had been spotted in the area. Syncrude employee Frederick (Rick) Corcoran called Mr. Matthews to report the sightings, and was told “basically his people were just started that week,” according to Mr. Corcoran's statement to investigators.

Mr. Corcoran then e-mailed six supervisors in the area, notifying them that birds had been spotted and that Mr. Matthews had acknowledged the lack of deterrents. The e-mail, sent on April 17, was relied on heavily by prosecutors.
Syncrude argues that being convicted under both laws amounts to double jeopardy; a hearing on that claim will take place in August. Once that issue is settled, the court will set a date for sentencing. Syncrude could face a fine of up to $800,000 for the bird deaths.