Friday, June 11, 2010

June 25th - A Special Day for Syncrude

In light of the recent ecological disaster related to oil industry activity in the Gulf of Mexico, I thought I'd post about a serious issue that's facing Canada's own oil industry.

A news item from May 2010 that did not receive a lot of coverage in the national media is the court case in Alberta where Syncrude has been charged under Canada's Migratory Bird Act for the deaths of over 1600 migrating ducks in their Aurora Project tailing pond on April 28th, 2008. Initial reports suggested that only 500 ducks had died, however, as time went on, it became apparent that the deaths totalled more than triple the original estimate. It took both the Alberta and Federal governments nearly 9 months to lay charges in this case. The trial began on March 1 in St. Alberta just north of Edmonton and ended 2 1/2 months later on May 12th, 2010.

The Syncrude tailings ponds are used to store the water, sediment, toxic heavy metals and bitumen that result from the tar sands washing process; the hot water washing process is used to separate the viscous crude oil from the sand that contains the tar. The Syncrude Tailings Dam, the largest barrage dam by volume in the world, surrounds the tailings ponds; roughly 500,000 tons of tailings are produced daily. Currently, the tailings ponds in the Fort McMurray area cover over 130 square kilometres according to CTV. Syncrude hopes that the tailing ponds can be reclaimed by 2023 although the following screen caps from Google Earth show that reclamation will be, at the very least, a daunting task because of the gargantuan size and the rather toxic content of the ponds.

Here is the Syncrude Aurora mine where the bird deaths took place. Notice that the eye altitude on the photo is 26.7 kilometres. The width of the roads on the photo give some sense of the scale of the ponds:

Here is a Google Earth screen cap showing both the Syncrude Mildred Lake and Suncor operations just north of Fort McMurray. The eye altitude on this photo is 46.87 kilometres (20 kilometres higher than the first photo) so the tailing ponds are actually far larger than at the Aurora site. You can also get a sense of the areal extent of boreal forest that has been destroyed by the mining process:

Generally, to discourage migrating water fowl from landing on the tailings ponds, propane-fired air cannons are used. Here is the webpage that outlines Syncrude's Waterfowl Protection program. On the day in question back in April 2008, the air cannons were not functioning, allegedly because heavy snowfall resulted in a deployment delay. When the birds landed in the ponds, they became entrapped by the floating bitumen and could not escape. The birds either died by immediate drowning or struggled to get out of the toxic soup that entrapped them until they died in misery some time later. Syncrude also claims that a shortage of personnel and vehicles prevented timely setup of waterfowl deterrents. In fact, Syncrude's Bird and Ecology Team originally consisted of 13 members and had been allowed to dwindle to only 8 members because of attrition, many of whom apparently were not on site at the time of the incident. As well, only one of the teams four trucks were available. It's hard to imagine how such a mammoth operation had a shortage of both vehicles and personnel but I guess it's all in how Syncrude sets its priorities.

Robert White, the lawyer for Syncrude, told Judge Ken Tjosvold, that the matter should have been handled in provincial court. He claimed that "this was a denial of fairness, justice, common sense and decency". I'm sure that each and every one of the 1600 birds would agree with his statement. Mr. White also claimed that under current regulations, there is a zero tolerance for bird deaths. Here is another of his comments:

"If, therefore, Syncrude is guilty of this crime, the government is complicit and the industry is doomed...I am not sure everyone has understood those are the stakes in this case. It's because, first of all, we didn't let anything loose into the environment, and second, if the Crown can make this statute say what it doesn't, we're done. If by having a tailings pond we're guilty of this charge, we have to stop having tailings ponds...There would be two options: break the law (by operating tailings ponds that would inevitably kill birds) or shut down."

In other words, if the judge finds Syncrude guilty, even one bird death could potentially lead to the laying of additional charges in the future since, as the law stands now, there is a zero tolerance for waterfowl deaths. Basically, the result of a guilty verdict would be that continued operation of the tailings ponds would expose Syncrude to unestimable liabilities because they could potentially be continuously in breach of the law. Mr. White's comments make it seem as though the oil sands industry is holding itself hostage to the demands of the courts which, in reality, may not really be that far from the truth.

Judge Tjosvold expects that he will hand down his final ruling on June 25th, 2010. If found guilty, the Syncrude case will set a precedent for future charges against other oil sands operators including CNRL and Suncor who also have tailings ponds associated with their oil sands operations. It could also mean that every time in the future that there are water fowl deaths associated with these tailings ponds, additional charges could be laid.

Under the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, the maximum penalty is $500,000 and under the Canadian Migratory Birds Convention Act the maximum fine would be $300,000 and six months imprisonment for company executives. The fact that prison sentences are a possibility has to send cold chills down the spines of Syncrude executives although I suspect it is highly unlikely any of them would cast their shadow anywhere near a federal facility.

It will be interesting to see the final outcome of this case, especially in light of the fact that it will set a precedent for all present and future operations in Canada's tar sands.

I'll be keeping an eye on the outcome.


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