FORT MCMURRAY, Alberta – Canada’s government was investigating an oil sands company after hundreds of ducks that landed on a partially frozen pond filled with toxic waste died.
A flock of about 500 migrating mallards landed on the pond owned by the oil sands company Syncrude Canada Ltd. earlier this week in Alberta. Only about five of the birds that landed were saved, officials said Wednesday.
The oil sands project sits along a major flyway for migrating waterfowl, and the province requires that all such ponds have the noisemaking devices to scare the birds and prevent them from landing.
But Syncrude spokesman Alain Moore said a recent snowstorm delayed the deployment of 13 propane-powered cannons, which are used from spring to fall to deter birds from entering ponds.
“We had a rapid spring thaw on the weekend and we were beginning to deploy (the cannons), but that’s when we came across the tragic occurrence of these ducks landing,” Moore said.
Cabinet ministers said the government investigation will focus on why Syncrude didn’t move more quickly to deploy the cannons.
Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach said he was concerned that Syncrude did not report the incident. The government was alerted only after a tipster called in Monday night to report that the ducks were in the pond.
“If there is negligence, there will be prosecution,” said Ted Morton, Alberta’s minister of sustainable resource development.
Syncrude and Ed Stelmach’s Conservative government said this is the first time in the 30-year history of Alberta’s major oil sands projects that an incident of this magnitude has been recorded. Government reports show that usually fewer than two dozen waterfowl are killed annually on the various tailings ponds.
Alberta is home to vast reserves of oil sands, a tar-like bitumen that is extracted using mining techniques. Industry officials estimate the region could yield as much as 175 billion barrels of oil, making Canada second only to Saudi Arabia in crude oil reserves.
But Alberta’s environment Minister Rob Renner said Wednesday the incident has put a major dent in Alberta’s efforts to counter the message being spread by environment groups that the massive northern oil sands projects are taking a major toll on the environment.
“It’s a real blow to our messaging that we are working very, very hard ensure that we do have sustainable development,” Renner said.