EDMONTON - More than 200 birds died after they landed on gooey, toxic oilsands tailings ponds in northern Alberta, just days after oil giant Syncrude agreed to pay more than $3 million in a similar case where 1,600 ducks died.
Syncrude appears to have been hardest hit Monday night, with 230 birds needing to be put down after seeking refuge on the company's Mildred Lake tailings pond, which contains a thick brew of poisonous oilsands byproduct.
By Tuesday evening, Shell and Suncor had also reported a "handful" of bird landings and the province had opened a regional investigation, said Alberta Environment spokeswoman Cara Tobin.
Suncor issued a news release saying "a small number of oiled birds" were euthanized at the order of provincial officials but did not specify exactly how many birds had to be killed.
Shell officials could not be reached for comment.
Both Suncor and Syncrude blamed freezing rain for the situation. A news release on Syncrude's website said workers noticed the birds Monday night in parking lots and on roads around its operation. They appeared exhausted and unable to fly. Initially Syncrude said only 125 birds had to be killed but that number grew throughout the day.
"This definitely is not something that we wanted to see happen," said spokeswoman Cheryl Robb. "It's hit us really hard."
Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner was first to go public with the Syncrude case Tuesday morning.
"It's discouraging in the extreme," Renner said. "I thought we had moved the agenda significantly forward so that this kind of incident would be minimized, but the fact of the matter is that we are now dealing with what appears to be a similar incident.
"The timing," he added, "obviously, couldn't be worse."
Last Friday, Syncrude was ordered to pay $3 million in penalties for the deaths of 1,600 ducks on its Aurora tailings pond in 2008. The company initially reported that 500 ducks were involved, but later admitted the actual number was triple that amount.
The ruling wrapped up a two-year legal odyssey that saw images of tar-fouled and suffering birds flashed around the world.
"It just happened last week and now we have this other incident, which is not only frustrating, it makes one angry," Premier Ed Stelmach told the legislature. "But on the other hand, let's get the full details about the investigation."
Syncrude had argued during trial that the company was caught off guard by a late-spring snowstorm that left the birds with nowhere to land but the tailings pond.
Court also heard Syncrude was having problems with its bird deterrence program and was two weeks behind in setting up air cannons and scarecrows.
Syncrude pledged to restore its image after Friday's decision.
The company said air cannons, flare guns and air horns were all working Monday night, but had no effect on the tired waterfowl. Suncor also said its deterrent systems were "fully operational."
"You know, the incident in 2008 is something that we've regretted from the beginning — we can do things better," Robb said. "We just didn't expect an incident again to happen at Syncrude. We've been doing our very best to prevent anything from happening again."
Federal NDP environment critic Linda Duncan, who is also an Alberta MP, said the time has come to shut down the tailings ponds.
"This is reprehensible," said Duncan in a phone interview from Ottawa. "It makes a mockery of the (recent) conviction.
"No amount of penalty or donation to a large institution will prevent this from continuing to happen."
Opposition Alberta Liberal Leader David Swann blamed the province.
"This government has to take responsibility for setting standards, monitoring standards and enforcing standards — the basic role of government," he said.
Mike Hudema of the environmental activist group Greenpeace said the latest incident proves that nothing has changed.
"Syncrude needs more than a slap on the wrist and this government needs to do more than just being the public relations firm for the tarsands industry," said Hudema.
"The minister of the environment needs to stop being disappointed and start actually getting mad and regulating these companies."
But Alberta Energy Minister Ron Liepert said the government will continue to foster the development of its oilsands resource.
"Clearly, we've got a very strong commitment to develop those resources in a responsible way and we are going to continue to do that."
The oilsands have also drawn international attention, ranging from a U.S.-based billboard campaign urging Americans not to visit Alberta to Oscar-winning director James Cameron's recent visit to the area.
— With files from Bill Graveland in Calgary