CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - Hundreds of dead and dying ducks could cost Canada's biggest oil sands producer C$1 million ($990,000) after the migrating waterfowl landed in a pond of oily, toxic sludge in northern Alberta.
Syncrude Canada's operations were under investigation by environmental regulators on Wednesday after as many as 500 birds landed in the waste water, known as a tailings pond, at the Aurora North mine near Fort McMurray, Alberta.
Migrating waterfowl are supposed to be kept from the poisonous waters at the mine, where massive shovels pull tons of oil-laden sand from the ground, by sound-cannons that simulate gunfire. But a winter storm had delayed deployment of the system, a Syncrude spokesman said.
"We have a deterrent program in place that's effective," said Alain Moore. "We've had it in operation for 30 years and haven't had something like this occur at our site. But we did have some unusual circumstances."
The incident is the latest environmental black eye for Canada's booming oil sands region, where more than C$100 billion is being poured into projects to tap the biggest storehouse of oil outside of the Middle East.
Environmental groups have already raised concerns about carbon-dioxide emissions, destruction of the boreal forest that is stripped away to get at the oil deposits, and the potential for tailing ponds to contaminate local rivers.
Greenpeace said it was an anonymous call that tipped government regulators to the bird deaths, and it attacked what it described as rampant development of the oil sands.
"This speaks to the inadequacies of the government's ability to monitor even the most basic environmental safeguards put on tar sands development," Greenpeace's Mike Hudema said in a statement.
The incident made national headlines as Ron Stevens, Alberta's deputy premier, was in Washington to let U.S. legislators know the province represents an "environmentally responsible source of energy supply to the United States."
Alberta's Environment Ministry said in a release it had investigators at the site.
"Alberta requires that Syncrude have a waterfowl protection plan in place that includes a comprehensive bird deterrent program for all tailings ponds," the ministry said in a release. "If Syncrude did not comply, the Alberta government will take action, with penalties up to C$1 million.
The Syncrude joint venture is owned by Canadian Oil Sands Trust, Imperial Oil Ltd, Petro-Canada, ConocoPhillips, Nexen Inc, Nippon Oil Corp unit Mocal Energy Ltd and Murphy Oil Corp.
Reporting by Scott Haggett; Editing by Rob Wilson