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Record fine for Syncrude

$3 million for dead birds; biggest eco-fine in provincial history

By: Kevin Ma

  |  Posted: Friday, Oct 22, 2010 04:10 pm

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Syncrude will pay a $3-million fine for the deaths of hundreds of birds on its tailings pond, a judge ruled in St. Albert Friday. It's the biggest environmental fine in provincial history, but advocates call it a slap on the wrist.

Judge Ken Tjosvold fined Syncrude Canada Ltd. $3 million for the deaths of about 1,600 birds on its Aurora tailings pond in April 2008. The birds died after the company failed to get its deterrent system out on time. The sentence was a joint submission from the company's lawyers and government prosecutors.

Tjosvold found Syncrude guilty of breaking Sect. 155 of the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act and Sect. 5.1(1) of the federal Migratory Birds Convention Act in June, but held off on sentencing until Friday so lawyers could work out a creative sentence.

Syncrude has publically apologized for its crimes, said company lawyer John Marshall, and Friday apologized for them in court. “It recognizes that it can and should do much better.”

The company has enhanced its bird deterrent systems since the incident, he added.

This was a “very positive outcome” for the trial, said Tjosvold, one that should help prevent similar crimes in the future. Syncrude might not have been able to prevent the bird deaths, but it did not take all reasonable steps to reduce the risk of those deaths. “Syncrude's efforts did not come close to minimizing that [risk] from happening.”

Cash for research, school, wetland

The $3-million fine comes in three parts. First, Syncrude must pay $300,000 to the federal government and $500,000 to the province — the maximum fines allowed by law. Both fines include the victim's fine surcharge. The federal fine and half the provincial fine will go into general revenue.

The other half of the provincial fine, or $250,000, will go to Fort McMurray's Keyano College to create a wildlife management diploma program, said provincial prosecutor Susan McRory. This would help teach locals to monitor and protect wildlife in the oilsands region.

Second, Syncrude must give the Alberta Conservation Association $900,000 to buy about 24 hectares of wetlands near North Cooking Lake, located about 27 kilometres east of Edmonton.

The land purchase would complete the association's efforts to protect a 600-hectare wetland called Golden Ranches, said federal prosecutor Kent Brown, which is part of a large migratory bird corridor. It would also give many Edmontonians a chance to learn about the importance of wetlands.

Third, Syncrude must give the University of Alberta $1.3 million to research bird deterrents on tailings ponds. “The simple way to describe it is ‘how to build a better bird deterrent program,'” McRory said.

Colleen Cassady St. Clair, the University of Alberta biologist picked to head the research program, said her team would spend the next three years testing bird deterrents to figure out which ones work best.

“One size won't fit all,” she said during a break in proceedings, with different systems working best under different circumstances.

Syncrude will be required to implement any improvements recommended by this research, according to the text of the sentence, and to make the research public. Syncrude has until Nov. 30 to pay its fines.

Wrist-slap, says critic

This sentence should show oilsands companies the need to put a high priority on environmental protection, said McRory, speaking outside of court. “This is the biggest fine in Alberta history.”

Mike Hudema of Greenpeace described the fine as a slap on the wrist. “I don't think a $3-million fine to a multibillion dollar company sets much of a deterrent.” The Crown should have asked for a per-bird fine, he argued, which would have been worth about $480 million.

The federal government could have asked for $300,000 per bird, Brown said outside of court, but did not think the judge would support such a sentence.

St. Clair said she hoped the sentence would both boost bird protection and help companies restore their environmental reputations. “Everyone's going to be poised to win.”


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