Syncrude duck deaths now triple initial tally

Tue Mar 31, 2009 6:33pm EDT
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By Jeffrey Jones

CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - The death toll among ducks that landed on a toxic waste pond at Syncrude Canada Ltd's oil sands operation last spring was 1,606, more than three times higher than previously made public, Syncrude's chief executive said on Tuesday.

Syncrude CEO Tom Katinas disclosed the final count after getting permission from prosecutors in a criminal case against Canada's biggest oil sands producer over the deaths, which became symbolic in efforts by green groups to highlight the environmental impact of developing the huge energy resource.

The previous public tally was 500, which was the number first estimated after the incident. Katinas said he had been unable to make the higher duck death toll public due to the investigation and with the case before the courts.

"You have to understand that the recovery of birds occurred over several months, so as the number started rising people like myself were in shock," he told reporters. "I called people in and demanded to know what happened here."

It appears that many of the birds sank after getting coated with petroleum residue in the pond at the northern Alberta site, and later floated back to the surface, Katinas said.

Syncrude, a joint venture of several major oil companies, faces federal and provincial charges over the deaths on the tailings pond, a body of wastewater, petroleum and other chemical byproducts of oil sands extraction. The firm made its first court appearance last week.

The fowl were killed last April when a snowstorm delayed deployment of bird-deterring sound cannons that simulate gunfire. Other water bodies in the region were still frozen, leaving the migrating flock with no other options for setting down, Katinas said.

Alberta's oil sands represent the largest oil deposits outside the Middle East, and the tar-like crude is seen as an important source of secure energy for the United States.   Continued...

<p>A general view of Syncrude's $7.5 million expansion mine, which remains shut after residents complained of odors coming from the site, north of Fort McMurray, Alberta May 24, 2006. REUTERS/Todd Korol</p>