CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - The province of Alberta and the Canadian government laid charges against the Syncrude Canada Ltd joint venture on Monday after 500 ducks died in April after landing on a tailings pond at Syncrude's oil sands operation in northern Alberta.
The province alleges Syncrude, the world's biggest oil sands producer, failed to have appropriate deterrents in place to keep the ducks from landing on the huge and toxic waste-water pond.
The ducks became fouled in the tailings pond after a spring snowstorm delayed deployment of the sound cannons that Syncrude uses to keep waterfowl from landing.
The incident brought worldwide attention to the ecological impact of exploiting the oil sands, the largest oil reserves outside the Middle East.
Syncrude mines tar-laden sand in open pits and separates out the heavy crude using hot water and chemicals. The toxic residue from the process is pumped into tailing ponds.
"We feel horrible that it happened," said Alain Moore, a spokesman for Syncrude. "We have resolved to make the appropriate changes to prevent it from happening again."
Moore said Syncrude is taking the charges seriously and would be in court next month to answer to them.
The Alberta charges, laid under the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, carry a maximum penalty of C$500,000 ($410,000).
"We believe that there was a contravention of our legislation and obviously the federal government believes there was a contravention" of their laws," Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner told reporters.
Environment Canada laid one charge against the oil sands producer under the Migratory Birds Convention Act, which carries a maximum fine of C$300,000.
The federal charge is for allegedly depositing or permitting the deposit of a substance harmful to migratory birds in waters or an area frequented by birds.
Environmental groups last month were the first to try to land Syncrude in court, launching a private prosecution to have the oil sands firm charged under the federal Migratory Birds Act for the death of the ducks.
The groups, including Ecojustice, the Sierra Club and Forest Ethics, expect their action to be stayed or withdrawn since Environment Canada is charging Syncrude under the same provisions.
They question why it took nine months for charges to be laid.
"We were able to put together a private prosecution on a shoestring budget in a matter of months," said Jeh Custer, a spokesman for the Sierra Club.
Syncrude, located north of Fort McMurray, Alberta, is the world's largest producer of synthetic crude oil.
Its partners include 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 Peter Galloway