"A significant amount of the bitumen in tar sands, probably between 3 and 10%, cannot be recovered and ends up in tailings ponds. Bitumen mat on the surface of the tailings pond can trap the waterfowl that land on it and the birds will eventually sink with the bitumen. As bitumen contamination increases, birds lose buoyancy and the insulating effect of feathers. There is a loss of the feathers’ waterproofing, leading to hypothermia or drowning. Birds will lose their ability to fly. A heavily oiled bird will almost certainly die...
Birds that attempt to preen bitumen from their feathers and those that forage on the shores of the pond may ingest bitumen which is toxic to them. Even a light oiling can interfere with a bird’s reproductive abilities. Relatively small amounts of some petroleum products may also result in high levels of mortality for bird embryos."
Sounds lovely doesn't it? Here's Syncrude's defence to the provincial charge:
"Respecting the provincial charge, Syncrude argues that:
1. By adding the word “fail” to the charge, the Crown has alleged an offence unknown to law.
2. The word “fail” imposes on the Crown the obligation to prove Syncrude’s conscious dereliction of the duty to ensure that a harmful substance did not come into contact with birds.
3. The Crown has failed to prove that Syncrude did “keep” or “store” a hazardous substance.
4. The Crown has failed to prove that a hazardous substance did “come into contact with” or “contaminate” any animals."
You've got to love how lawyers can spin these things. I particularly like points three and four. I guess no birds died and there was no bitumen kept or stored in the tailings ponds that the non-existent birds didn't die in! In the words of Syncrude's lawyer, the bitumen had been "disposed of" by the company; I guess once the waste bitumen left their upgrader, it's like it never existed.
Fortunately, Judge Tjosvold didn't see things the way the defence lawyer saw them. Syncrude was found guilty of two charges: a charge of failing to prevent a toxic substance from harming wildlife under the provincial act and a federal charge of depositing a substance that is harmful to migratory birds. Judge Tjosvold noted in his ruling that Syncrude simply did not do enough to ensure the safety of the birds. They had inadequate staffing levels and vehicles for bird deterrence and were weeks late in deploying bird deterrent equipment.