Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

Syncrude facing private prosecution over dead ducks

Syncrude facing private prosecution over dead ducks
Globe and Mail Update
January 7, 2009

An Alberta resident launched a private prosecution against one of the country's largest oils-sands' operators, alleging that it was responsible for killing 500 ducks at its northern Alberta facility last spring.

Jeh Custer, a member of the Sierra Club Canada, commenced legal action in Edmonton Wednesday against Syncrude Canada Ltd. He said that if nothing was done, such practices by oil companies would continue without consequences.

“We are bringing this forward because this incident of 500 ducks dying ... is further evidence that pollution from tar sands extraction is making the environment too toxic for birds, in this case migratory waterfowl, and people,” Mr. Custer said in an interview. “The regrettable failure of the Alberta and federal governments to enforce their own environmental laws means that ordinary Canadians must act.”

In April, about 500 birds died after landing on a snow-covered tailings pond at Syncrude's plant in northern Alberta. Images of the ducks that had sunk to their deaths in the toxic byproduct of Syncrude's oil-sands operation spread around the world. Environmental groups used the incident to illustrate the perceived hazards resulting from oil sands development.

The pond usually has noise-making cannons that keep away migrating waterfowl. But the devices hadn't been deployed because of a late winter storm, allowing the ducks to land.

Environment Canada has yet to conclude its investigation. And the Alberta government launched its own probe under the provincial Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act. The province requires the company to have a waterfowl protection plan at its tailings ponds. If convicted, fines can reach up to $1-million.

Environmental groups said that nine months after the incident, governments have failed to act. “If we are able to put together our own prosecution in two months on a shoestring budget, why are the feds and the province still sitting on their hands?” Mr. Custer asked.

A provision under the Criminal Code allows a person to prosecute if the Attorney General has failed to act. On Wednesday, Mr. Custer appeared before a justice of the peace in Edmonton with the allegations. The judge referred the matter to a provincial court judge for a process hearing to be held in February. At that hearing, the judge will determine whether or not to issue a summons to Syncrude.

The Crown may also step in at any time to take over the prosecution.

The lawsuit against Syncrude is under the Federal Migratory Birds Convention Act, which prohibits harmful substances from being deposited in an frequented by migratory birds.

The lawsuit is launched by Ecojustice, formerly Sierra Legal Defence Fund, on behalf of Mr. Custer. It is also supported by Sierra Club Canada and Forest Ethics.

Syncrude Canada spokesman Alain Moore declined comment Wednesday because the issue is now in front of the courts. He said the company is taking steps to ensure that no repeat of the incident takes place. Those changes will be announced before the spring, he said.

“There's tremendous resolve within our organization to make the appropriate changes to ensure it doesn't happen again,” Mr. Moore said.


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