Syncrude scare cannons criticized

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Too late and too few, experts say

Syncrude should have deployed its scare cannons far earlier than it did to effectively keep birds off its tailings pond, said experts at a recent trial, and might have needed more of them.

Crown prosecutors called their last two witnesses in the Syncrude trial this week in St. Albert Provincial Court. The trial involves the deaths of approximately 1,600 birds on the company’s Aurora tailings pond on April 28, 2008.

Syncrude Ltd. has been charged under the provincial Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act and the federal Migratory Birds Convention Act in connection with the deaths of those birds. If convicted on both counts, it could be fined up to $800,000.

Testimony heard earlier in the trial suggests that Syncrude’s deterrent system was not fully in place by April 28.

Colleen Cassady St. Clair, an internationally renowned zoologist at the University of Alberta and authority on bird deterrents in the oilsands, spoke on the importance of having deterrents in place on tailings ponds before migrating birds arrived.

“It is essential that deterrent systems be operational before spring migration begins,” she said. Most experts put the start of migration in around early spring. “Late April is not early spring.”

Research suggests that birds can begin arriving as early as two weeks before ice breakup, which typically starts at the end of March.

Citing research by Syncrude researcher Keith Yonge written in 1979, St. Clair noted that during the early ice breakup, tailings ponds could be particularly attractive to birds as they are ice-free while surrounding lakes are still frozen. “During this critical period, certain weather systems could force many birds to land in the tailings ponds.”

Previous testimony has suggested that a sudden snowstorm might have occurred shortly before the birds landed on the Aurora pond.

This evidence, in addition to research in reports available to Syncrude prior to 2008, suggests the company should have known of the risk of birds landing on the pond if it did not have its deterrents in place, argued provincial Crown prosecutor Susan McRory. “My friend [defence counsel Robert White]might say that the events of April 28 were act of God. This paper would say no.”

St. Clair will be cross-examined by Syncrude’s lawyers this Friday.

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Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.