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CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - About 125 ducks were euthanized after they landed on a toxic waste pond owned by Syncrude Canada Ltd, just three days after the oil sands producer was fined C$3 million for a similar incident two years ago that killed 1,600 waterfowl.
In a statement, Syncrude said about 200 birds landed on its Mildred Lake tailings pond in the northern Alberta oil sands on Monday and many had to be euthanized after becoming fouled by tar-like bitumen floating on the surface of the pond. The health of the remaining birds is still being assessed.
The company, one Canada's largest oil sands producers, said its bird deterrent system was operating, but the birds may have been forced down by a freezing-rain storm.
"They appeared to be exhausted and unable to fly," Syncrude said. "Birds that landed on roads and parking lots were approachable, strengthening the opinion that fatigue forced them to land."
Syncrude reported the landings to Alberta's environment department, which said its staff were on site to ensure deterrents are in place and to keep other waterfowl from landing on the pond.
Last week, Syncrude was fined C$3 million ($2.9 million) for a 2008 event where more than 1,600 ducks died after landing on a tailings pond at Syncrude's Aurora site. The incident launched an international campaign by environmental groups critical of oil sands development and it also tarnished Alberta's reputation.
"I cannot express how disappointed and frustrated I am that this incident occurred," Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner said in a statement. "Albertans deserve answers to why this happened again."
The federal government said it will investigate, and lay charges if warranted. Syncrude was convicted on both federal and provincial charges in the last incident.
Oil sand operators must have systems in place to deter birds from landing on their tailings ponds, which are filled with wastewater, clay, heavy metals and residual oil, byproducts of the oil sands extraction process.
Simon Dyer, oil sands program director at the Pembina Institute, an Alberta-based environmental think tank, said the incident shows that government and regulators are not doing enough to halt the spread of toxic waste from the oil sands extraction process.
The group has been a harsh critic of recent regulatory approvals of tailings plans that fall short of newly tightened rules, at least in the early years of operation.
"The first incident two years ago was not an isolated incident, so even with the best mitigation you can get, the fact that we have these waste lagoons on the landscape means you're still going to see incidents like that," Dyer said.
Syncrude's partners include Canadian Oil Sands Trust, Imperial Oil Ltd, Suncor Energy Inc, Sinopec Corp, Nexen Inc, JX Holdings Inc unit Mocal Energy and Murphy Oil Co.
Additional reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Rob Wilson