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CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - About 230 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.
Syncrude said the birds landed on its Mildred Lake tailings pond in the northern Alberta oil sands on Monday and many had to be euthanized after coming into contact with tar-like bitumen floating on the surface of the pond.
They were among an unknown number of birds that set down on tailings ponds at as many as three major oil sands mines. The Alberta government reported ducks also landed at facilities run by Suncor Energy Inc and Royal Dutch Shell.
Syncrude, one of 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 in a statement. "Birds that landed on roads and parking lots were approachable, strengthening the opinion that fatigue forced them to land."
It is not known yet if the death toll will keep climbing, Syncrude spokeswoman Cheryl Robb said.
The incident is an embarrassment for the oil sands industry and Alberta government, which seek to expand markets for the heavy crude in the United States amid an international campaign by environmental groups highly critical of the impact of development on air, water, wildlife and local communities.
Just last week, Syncrude was fined C$3 million ($2.9 million) for a 2008 incident where more than 1,600 waterfowl died after landing on a tailings pond at Syncrude's Aurora site.
Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department is weighing a TransCanada Corp proposal to build a $7 billion oil pipeline, called Keystone XL, to the U.S. Gulf Coast from Alberta and has delayed its decision while it studies environmental impacts.
Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner admitted the latest incident was "not helpful" to the efforts.
"I cannot express how disappointed and frustrated I am that this incident occurred," he said.
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 sands 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 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 litigation 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 and Sofina Mirza-Reid