Follow-up on Syncrude Duck Deaths

Syncrude has received the verdict for failing to protect wildlife – 1600 ducks died in a poison filled bitumen lake when they landed after a winter storm..

Syncrude face[d] one count under Section 155 of the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act for allegedly failing to ensure that hazardous substances directly or indirectly not come into contact or contaminate any animals, plants, food or drink.
It is also charged with one count of violating the federal Migratory Birds Convention Act for depositing or permitting the deposit of a substance harmful to migratory birds in waters or an area frequented by birds.

The original estimate was 500 hundred ducks, but I suspect the company underreported the amount dead in an attempt to control the spin. There were some irregularities at the time of the incident:

The relevant government agencies had to learn about the incident from an anonymous phone call, 2 hours before the company called the incident in.

Gaudet said a company operator first discovered the ducks around 9:30 a.m. Monday. The report was called in to the company’s environmental office, then relayed to the province’s fish and wildlife office by noon. The province had already received an anonymous tip about the ducks by that time and had left a message with Syncrude, Gaudet said.
The company was supposed to call Alberta Environment immediately.
When asked why Alberta Environment wasn’t called right away, Gaudet said the company called the regulators it thought were best suited to handle the situation.
As for the timing of that call, Gaudet said: “Our initial activity is to get out into the field to witness and assess, and then to get to Alberta Environment or Fish and Wildlife or Sustainable Resource Development immediately to report it. I think, in this instance, a couple of hours to verify the numbers, to assess the situation, to get my environmental team on the ground was well worth it. I’d hate to be reporting in an unsubstantiated or a minor event that needs a major response.

I wonder why the anonymous phone call was made. Why was it anonymous ?
1) The secrecy of the call would suggest that this incident had happened before. People do not make anonymous calls the first time an unforeseen tragedy occurs.
2) It was rather serious in nature; if the caller could determine how serious the incident was on his/her initial survey, why did it take the company more than 2 hours to “assess” the situation. I suspect they were assessing the need to admit the truth.
3) The company was planning on not reporting the incident. More importantly, there were serious repercussion for the caller if the company found out

The findings of the trial can be summed:

Provincial Crown prosecutor Susan McRory said in her closing argument Thursday that there was no evidence to support Syncrude’s contention that it was late in deploying the bird deterrents because of a spring snowstorm.
She rejected the argument that the incident was unforeseen, an act of God or beyond the control of Syncrude, noting that two other oilsands companies, Albion Sands and Suncor, both had their bird deterrents deployed well in advance.
**”In contrast to the other companies in the area who had policies and procedures in place to ensure an early deployment, in the year before the alleged offense Syncrude had reduced staff, days of operation and their inventory of equipment.”

Team members later told investigators they were short-staffed and under equipped to do their jobs . The unit that had once boasted 14 members in two, seven-member teams to ensure seven-day-a-week bird deterrent coverage, was down to eight workers due to retirements — and one of them was off with an illness. No one worked April 18th, 19th or 20th.
The reduction of staff was not initially reported to Alberta Fish and Wildlife either.
Matthews told investigators he didn’t think the reduction of his team was a concern.
“We felt we could look after the work that we had to do with the people that we had. Our records for the previous years indicated that we were doing a good job.”

But employees said they had just one truck to use to deploy duck deterrents — down from three they normally had at their disposal — and due to safety rules they could only load five propane-fuelled cannons on the truck at any one time.
“If we had more vehicles, we could have done more,” team member Fred Cardinal told investigators.
If there was to be a race against the clock to get deterrents deployed in advance of the arriving birds, the company was ill-prepared to get the job done, the Crown argued at the subsequent trial.

“In the face of complaints by staff on April 17, 2008, that birds were landing in the tailings pond, Syncrude didn’t assign the problem the priority it deserved, nor did they have the resources to respond,” said provincial Crown prosecutor Susan McRory.
But even those deployments were delayed two days because the bird deployment team ran out of the common, nine-volt batteries that were required to fire the $700 noise cannons. (These small, inexpensive batteries are what most people use in smoke detectors.)
“We were going to set up more cannons, but we ran out of batteries,” team member Gordon Grandjambe told investigators. “We set them up, but we didn’t put the batteries in there. We had no batteries.”

For some time, Syncrude had been operating a boom on the settling basin to contain the bitumen mat, but that practice was curtailed in 2005 or 2006, according to Matthews. Fish and Wildlife was not advised of the change.

The prosecutor said Syncrude’s own employees noticed birds landing on the company’s Aurora tailings pond 11 days before the incident and called for bird deterrents to be deployed, but nothing was done.
White told reporters that due diligence requires foresight and the company could not have expected the incident because it had a 30-year period of successful bird deterrence.
He argued the deterrents would not have saved the ducks.
“This was the only water these birds could land on, and if everything had been deployed and banging, the Crown has not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that these birds wouldn’t have landed,” White said.
“Where would they go? There was nowhere else to go.”
White said the only other open water nearby was Syncrude’s Mildred Lake tailings pond, “but we had deployed our cannons at Mildred Lake.”
“That was it,” he said. “Land here or nowhere.”
Syncrude has opted not to call any witnesses for the defence. White said he plans to make his closing argument Wednesday.

  • Syncrude said they did not have time to set up their bird deterrents before the storm, but apparently 2 other companies did. Syncrude employees noted ducks landing on the pond 11 days before the storm — I guess 11 days was not enough.

  • Syncrude had a 30 year period of successful bird deterrence. So what happened this time ? They had 30 years of experience or was it 30 years of successful coverups ? Why was the call that was placed to wildlife anonymous ? Why wait hours and hours after the ducks landed before Alberta Environment was called ?

  • Syncrude had made some significant cuts in staffing and equipment(without informing the government). Cuts that made it impossible for the people charged with keeping the birds away from the tailings ponds to do so effectively. “Penny wise and pound foolish”

  • Given the history of understaffing and equipment reduction, I suspect the corporate motto for environmental protection was “shut up” and do what we tell you with some duct tape and chewing gum. Perhaps this pervasive lack of responsibility and accountability was why the anonymous call was placed.

Syncrude has asked the judge to dismiss all charges.

Syncrude told a provincial court judge Wednesday that the oilsands industry will be “doomed” if it is convicted of a crime as a result of birds landing on its tailings pond.

Syncrude is worried that anyone could start a lawsuit, simply because Syncrude has a tailings pond. According to their lawyer, Syncrude contained the environmental toxin; it was the bird’s fault that they landed in the pond. Syncrude was worried for the industry as a whole, because they could not run without the use of tailings ponds. I thought this was rather magnanimous of Syncrude to worry about the entire industry and the inability not to use the ponds.

White said the industry is “alarmed” by the charges because oilsands producers require settling basins to operate and won’t know where it stands if Syncrude is convicted.

The simple solution is just follow the rules.

But provincial Crown prosecutor Susan McRory told reporters the defence against the charges is having an adequate bird deterrent program to keep birds from landing on tailings ponds.
“This is a court. This is not a platform for political discussion,” she said. “I make the argument that the purpose of the legislation is to protect the environment for all the people in Alberta, oilsands companies, you and me, everyone, and the animals and the environment in general.”

Syncrude is working from an attitude of entitlement. The public and the government has given big business the mandate to make as much money as possible (with the hope of creating jobs and wealth). In alberta, there has been and still is a culture of paying little attention to safety standards and environmental costs if it gets in the way of making money.

Just last week, Premier Ed Stelmach said the province would demand oilsands companies eliminate wet tailings ponds “within a few years.”

“It means we’re going to have to force — when I say force, we’re going to get more aggressive — and work with companies presently in open-pit mining to move to either dry tailings or develop that resource without wet tailings ponds,” said Stelmach. “It’s going to take an investment, there’s no doubt about it, but we just can’t talk about it. We want to show progress. That’s what people see.”

One day after Stelmach’s speech, the province’s Energy Resources Conservation Board gave Syncrude a three-year grace period to meet provincial cleanup deadlines. On environmental issues, Alberta doesn’t walk softly and carry a big stick; it talks loudly and carries a wet noodle.

But, there are alternatives. Instead of operating on the basis that the ponds have been the way things have always been done and not looking at any other possibilities.
As Bob White was arguing that the oilsands industry can’t exist without wet tailings ponds, a conference called “Greening the Oil Sands” was getting underway in Ottawa. Among the speakers was Suncor president Rick George who said, “We expect this year to roll out new tailings technology that will significantly reduce the need for ponds to store mine tailings.”
Business needs the impetus to change. Without enforcing rule and regulations there will be very little positive movement towards real change. Carbon trading is a perfect example of business (and governments) taking the easy road out – playing with numbers rather than taking the initiative towards environmental stewardship.

Has Syncrude learned anything so far…**Keep the truth from getting out.

The most infamous tailings pond on earth is in lockdown. No TV crews allowed, no reporters, no pictures — nothing. You’d think Syncrude Canada had Chernobyl on its hands rather than a flock of dead ducks.
Tim Gray, corporate security adviser for Syncrude, sent out a confidential e-mail memo to staff that says:
.”Although this is certainly a very sad incident, it is our responsibility to ensure that the best interests of Syncrude are maintained.”
The leaked message, obtained by the Herald, says any “suspicious activity” is to be reported and “there is to be no photography on site.”
Entitled “Extra Vigilance,” it calls for stepped-up patrols, quick reporting of unusual activity and alerts of overhead flights.

Why all this fuss about a bunch of ducks. There are plenty more ducks around. But, it is not just about ducks. It is about the respect that we have for the environment and for our fellow citizens. If respect sounds like too strong a word – how about keeping things clean so everyone and everything has a chance to have access to clean water, clean food and clean air.

Treating the environment as being separate from human culture is an exercising in labeling. As if we could live separately from the environment ? We are part of the same complex system and to say “human”, “duck”,”fish” as being fundamentally separate from the environments that support is an exercise in duality and shortsightedness. Could any human society exist without the land, and rain to nourish raise the food the feed us. Global commerce has obscured the boundaries and the supermarket makes us forget the dirt that our food came from, but without this sustenance we will die, in spite of the tribulations of the stock market, the basis for the “economy” is ecology. We seem to forget this lesson again and again, alway believing in the god(s) or science (our ingenuity will outpace our stupidity and greed).

The tar “ponds” have been treated as some kind of perfect containment system. But, this is not the case as these dying ducks have show. However, contamination of the environment has been occurring and in humans, but it has not raised a great deal of controversy

The oilsands industry is boosting the amount of toxic metals in the Athabasca River, as well as in the area surrounding the plant sites

…a class of chemicals called polycyclic aromatic compounds, some of which are known carcinogens, were being released into the air on airborne particles from plant stacks and dusty mine sites and through run-off from developed sites. Heavy metals are being released in the same way.

The provincial government disputes that industry is adding significantly to the load of heavy metals. The river naturally contains a lot of heavy metals, says Preston McEachern, Alberta Environment section head of science, research and innovation. Studies show that virtually every metal increases steadily in concentration as you proceed downstream from the foothills through Alberta, he said.

The Alberta government put out a news release at the time saying levels of the rare cancer cholangiocarcinoma are not higher than expected in Fort Chipewyan.

Solomon said this gives a misleading impression because cholangiocarcinoma is a type of bile-duct cancer, and there were, overall, a higher than expected number of bile-duct cancers in the report.
She was also interested to note that many of the kinds of cancers that were elevated in that study are not the cancers typically associated with lifestyle factors, such as diet or smoking.
“In fact, when you look through the scientific literature on the specific cancers that were high, what you keep seeing is links to hydrocarbons and petroleum products in the scientific studies. That’s the case for the leukemias and lymphomas, as well as for the bile-duct cancer and for the soft-tissue sarcomas, which is also an extremely rare cancer. I’ve practised medicine for 20 years and I’ve never seen a soft-tissue sarcoma.”

So as with the ducks the truth is obscured by collusion between industry and government. The actual number of ducks killed was 1600, not the 500 that was originally estimated. I suppose that this estimate may have been low, simply because it was hard to count all the bodies, on the other there a big mental barrier above and below a thousand.

All of this waste and carelessness is not possible without me. I drive to work almost everyday. I buy the gasoline that comes from Fort McMurray or the Gulf of Mexico. I have never had the opportunity to comment on the practices of oil companies in their drive to meet our energy addictions. Would I have “voted” for a more costlier, ethically produced gasoline ? I would like to think that I would have. I think if we could have a mechanism in place that rewards those companies that are trying to do things the right way (or at least give them a financial incentive) and penalize companies that are trying to take shortcuts there would be a much faster compliance towards better practices.

Syncrude was found guilty of the Alberta duck deaths

In a decision delivered to a packed courtroom in St. Albert, Alta., provincial court Judge Ken Tjosvold said Syncrude didn’t exercise due diligence in preventing the birds from landing on the water.

After Friday’s ruling, Syncrude spokesperson Cheryl Robb said the company was disappointed with Tjosvold’s decision. Syncrude has always regretted the death of the ducks and that it has since improved its deterrent systems, she said.

I am really glad the regretted it — it makes it all better.

We have learned from the incident in 2008,” she said. “We’ve made significant changes to our system, because we don’t want — nobody at Syncrude, 5,000 employees-plus, nobody wants — to go to work and harm the environment or harm waterfowl or wildlife.”

Syncrude had 30 years of experience. They had the manpower and the equipment in place but the chose to cut back and not inform the proper authorities. They “forgot” what they had learned. The industry is incapable of policing itself. Government needs to act as a watchdog, but in Alberta, it seems to act more like a sycophantic lap dog.

“We have a gutless government which quite frankly missed all the failings that were cited by the judge today because we are cutting our monitoring, rather than increasing it,” said Alberta NDP MLA Rachel Notley.
“At the end of the day, if we have learned nothing from the Gulf oil disaster, what we should have learned is that we cannot continue to act like BP North and let industry police itself.”
“They continually cut back their budget and number of people that they have to regulate this industry and they’ve let companies monitor and enforce themselves and that is simply not acceptable.(Listeriosis anyone ?)”

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