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.

Crown prosecutors called their last two witnesses in the Syncrude trial this week in St. Albert court. The trial involves the deaths of about 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.

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. Most experts put the start of migration around early spring. “Late April is not early spring,” she said.

Remarks heard earlier in the trial suggest the deterrents were not fully in place by late April.

Prime time for migrants

April 18 to May 20 is considered “prime time” for most migrating birds, said John Gulley, an environmental consultant for Golder Associates who worked closely with oilsands companies, including Syncrude.

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

“It is essential that deterrent systems be operational before spring migration begins,” she said. “If site access is a problem, [those problems]should be overcome.”

Syncrude lawyers have previously argued that weather conditions made it tough to get onto the Aurora pond to deploy its deterrents on time.

Gulley noted a 1979 incident at the Suncor tailings pond that was similar to the one at Syncrude’s pond. Back then, weather conditions meant that the only open water available for migrating birds to land on was the water in Suncor’s tailings ponds. “The birds had to land. They landed in the tailings pond.” Some 124 birds died as a result.

“Couldn’t Suncor have seen it coming?” asked Robert White, defence counsel for Syncrude.

“No, at the time they could not,” Gulley replied. But they could today, he added: bird migration times are now well known to oilsands companies like Suncor, who as a result know to have their deterrents in place by early April.

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 unforeseeable,” she said, while referring to a paper by Gulley. “My friend might say that that the events of April 28 were act of God. This paper would say no.”

More cannons needed?

St. Clair also provided information suggesting that oilsands companies may not be using enough scare cannons on their ponds.

In a study for Albian Sands, she tested the likelihood that a scare cannon would cause birds to take flight (i.e. deter them) from a tailings pond when fired from 500 metres away — the industry standard distance between cannons. Birds had only a 10 per cent chance of flight when the cannon was fired from that distance. “These results suggest to me that [cannon]density could be a problem, particularly on a very large pond.”

Previous testimony has suggested that Syncrude had substantially decreased the number of cannons it planned to place on the Aurora pond in 2008, which would have reduced cannon density.

The trial continues 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.