Ducks struggled in oilsands goo after landing on Syncrude waste pond: court

ST. ALBERT, Alta. - The images show ducks struggling to swim through black, gooey mats of toxic oilsands bitumen at Syncrude's Aurora tailings pond in northern Alberta.

ST. ALBERT, Alta. - The images show ducks struggling to swim through black, gooey mats of toxic oilsands bitumen at Syncrude's Aurora tailings pond in northern Alberta.

Some of the birds appear so coated with oil that Todd Powell, an Alberta government senior wildlife biologist, says he could not determine the exact species or gender.

"The duck is trapped in it," Powell testified Tuesday, describing what he saw. "It looks like a male mallard, but it is almost 100 per cent covered."

Videos and photos of dead and dying waterfowl covered with oil were entered as evidence at the trial of Syncrude Canada on environmental charges.

More than 1,600 ducks died after landing on the tailings pond in April 2008. In the days following, images and stories of the dying waterfowl made news around the world. Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the loss of the birds in the toxic sludge had tarred Alberta's and Canada's international image.

Provincial and federal prosecutors contend that the oilsands giant was the only major company in the region that did not have required noise-making cannons deployed that day to scare away flocks of birds.

The company faces charges under the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act and the federal Migratory Birds Convention.

Powell described a sequence of photographs that showed an oil-covered duck on the shore of the tailings pond as a raven prepared to swoop in to attack.

He testified that normally a duck would try to flee to save itself, but in this case the images showed the bird sitting still as the raven got closer and closer before finally killing it.

"The duck should be able to launch itself ... in this case it made no attempt to leave," he testified. "The raven is attempting to eat whatever it can."

Outside court, Syncrude lawyer Robert White accused the Crown of using the terrible images to unfairly advance its case.

White called it "a bunch of showboating."

"What was more important to these people - horrifying us with pictures of ravens eating that poor duck? Why not put that poor thing out of its misery and shoot it," he said.

"They were far more interested in bring photographs of that poor thing being eaten alive, which makes me sick to my stomach, than they were at looking after the suffering of that animal."

White added that no sonic or visual device designed to scare birds are 100 per cent effective.

Court heard that Syncrude had no boats available on April 28, 2008, when the flock landed on the pond. Over the next few days, Alberta government inspectors patrolled the black water looking for birds that survived. They managed to rescue three with a net but destroyed a dozen others with a shotgun to put them out of their misery.

"We didn't want to see them suffer the same as the others suffered," Powell said.

Most of the ducks sank beneath the water within four to six hours of landing. The bitumen is toxic when ingested. The oil also prevents birds from preening their feathers to keep warm.

The trial also heard that Syncrude had reported the deaths of other ducks and waterfowl at the tailings pond in previous years.

Syncrude has pleaded not guilty. If convicted, the oilsands consortium could face a fine of up to $500,000 on the Alberta charge. The penalty for breaching the federal migratory birds act is at the discretion of the judge.

The trial is expected to last up to eight weeks.

At the time the ducks landed on the 12.2-square-kilometre toxic pond, Syncrude blamed a snowstorm for delaying use of the noise-making cannons and issued a public apology.

Tailings ponds from oilsands operations contain billions of litres of tainted water used to separate thick, black bitumen that still needs refining from sand.

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