The company, which is jointly owned by a number of multinational oil companies, was convicted of one offence under the federal Migratory Birds Convention Act, 1994, and one count under the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act.
Federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice (Calgary Centre-North) commented that the award demonstrated the Government’s ongoing commitment to enforce federal environmental regulations in the tar sands.
The award consists of:
- $300,000. This is the maximum fine available for an offence under the Migratory Birds convention Act, 1994. This fine will be paid to the federal Environmental Damages Fund (EDF).
- $500,000. This is the maximum fine under Alberta’s Environmental Protection Act. Half of the provincial fine will be directed towards the creation of a program for bird protection and monitoring and integrated with aboriginal training at Keyano College in Fort McMurray, Alberta.
- $2.2 million to be applied to the following environmental projects:
$1.3 million to be held in trust by the University of Alberta for the Avian Protection Research Study and $900,000 will be used to purchase lands in the Golden Ranches Conservation Area near Edmonton.
The charges stemmed from a joint investigation initiated after a large number of dead and dying migratory birds were found in the Syncrude’s Aurora Settling Basin (tailings pond), located north of Fort McMurray, Alberta on 28 April 2008. Environment Canada, Alberta Environment and Alberta Sustainable Resource Development enforcement officers conducted a joint investigation.
The Environmental Damages Fund is administered by the Government of Canada. The fund was created to provide the courts and companies with an option to direct monetary penalties and settlements to invest in and restore the environment. It helps ensure polluters take responsibility for their actions and enforces the “polluter pays” principle.
During the trial last June, Syncrude argued that it was “caught off-guard” by a late spring blizzard (approximately 40cm). The heavy snow storm left the ducks nowhere to land except for the tailings pond.
Syncrude was two weeks behind setting up air cannons and scarecrows meant to drive the ducks away. During the June trial, Judge Ken Tjosvold commented that Syncrude should have known that their deterrent measures should have been ready earlier. According to the prosecution, employees had warned that ducks were already starting to arrive in the area.
Witnesses at the trial stated that Syncrude’s seven man crew could do little to prevent the tragedy. Their boats were out of service, and they only had one truck to haul their equipment. Before the birds arrived, they had managed to install only 8 sound cannons out of the 130 which had been allocated to the toxic pond the year before. Like all the tailings ponds in the Tar Sands area, the water in this pond contained a mixture of clay, left over bitumen and other hydrocarbons (some of which are known carcinogens), and various toxic heavy metals.
Witnesses also stated that the ducks had no other obvious place to land following the blizzard. Many of the ducks were caught up in the sludge and scum on the pond. Many of the 1600 ducks drowned, while others were literally “eaten alive” by ravens.
Syncrude says it has taken steps to minimize the chance of something similar happening again. Deterrence measures now operate year round.
Judge Tjosvold said he was satisfied the sentence is “in fact a fit and proper one,” adding that he based it on the concept that it should be cheaper to obey the law than to flout it.
Syncrude could have faced fines of up to $500,000 under provincial legislation and $300,000 under federal legislation, as well as a maximum jail term of six months for company executives. Although the federal prosecutor Kent Brown said he wasn’t considering seeking a jail term, he had hinted that he might ask for the maximum fine for each of the 1,600 ducks.
Syncrude is a joint venture of 7 different oil companies: Canadian Oil Sands Ltd., an investment trust, (36.74%), Imperial Oil (25%), Suncor Energy (12%), Sinopec, owned by the Chinese govenment (9.03%), Nexen (7.23%), Nippon Oil Exploration (5%), and Murphy Oil (5%).