EDMONTON - The government says there won't be any charges against two oilsands companies that own tailings ponds in northern Alberta where hundreds of ducks died two years ago.
The Environment Department released a report by a University of Alberta biologist Thursday that said nothing could have been done when an early winter storm in October 2010 forced the birds to land on the toxic waste ponds belonging to Syncrude and Suncor near Fort McMurray. Others landed on nearby roads and parking lots.
More than 550 birds, many of them covered in oily goo, had to be destroyed.
The bird deaths came just days after Syncrude agreed to pay $3 million in penalties after 1,600 ducks died on one of its tailings ponds during a storm two years earlier. Pictures of dead and dying birds flashed around the world and Syncrude was cast by its critics as an environmental pariah.Story continues below...
A report by biologist Colleen Cassady St. Clair from the University of Alberta said strong winds, freezing rain and poor visibility forced the birds to land abruptly.
"The weather during, and especially preceding, the landings included a major storm event with high wind speeds and changing wind directions, exactly the conditions that hinder migration," she said in her report.
The Crown found that the report's conclusion as well as evidence gathered by provincial investigators left no reasonable chance of conviction, the government said.
Most of the birds that landed on the ponds died because they became covered in bitumen, while the ones who hit the ground probably died from blunt trauma, St. Clair said.
"Newspaper and eyewitness reports described birds as 'falling from the sky' onto parking lots and highways," she wrote. "It is conceivable that birds targeted pavement as landing sites because the dark night, low cloud cover and recent precipitation would have caused those surfaces to reflect what little light was available, much as water does."
St. Clair concluded that the event could not have been anticipated by the companies with any kind of "high precision or accuracy based on prior knowledge of causation.
But she suggested fatal landings will continue because of ever-increasing industry activity in an area that is home to more than a million migratory birds each year. As well, climate change is causing more storms, she said.
Alberta Premier Alison Redford supported the decision not to go ahead with charges. She said it was based on more than two years of research.
"Sometimes, incidents happen," she said. "The test is in the integrity of the system that then responds to this circumstance and I think that it's very important we had independent experts providing evidence on that."
Greenpeace campaigner Mike Hudema said the ducks wouldn't have died if the oilsands facilities hadn't been there.
“These ducks didn't die because of bad weather," he said.
"They died because their natural habitat has been replaced by toxic tailings lakes. Syncrude and Suncor should have to answer for the tragic costs of the toxics they create and release into the environment."
St. Clair offered 10 recommendations on how to prevent mortalities. They include not building any more tailings ponds within 3 1/2 kilometres of the Athabasca River and reassessing the position of artificial lights so as not to confuse birds.
Alberta Environment says a number of improvements have been implemented.
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Tailings are a waste byproduct from the oilsands extraction processes used in mining operations.Tailings consist of a mix of water, sand, silt, clay, contaminants and unrecovered hydrocarbons and are toxic. Source: Pembina Institute
Syncrude's Tailings Dam near Fort McMurray, Alberta is one of the largest dam in the world.
There have been at least 2,150 deaths of ducks related to tailings ponds in Alberta.
There are currently more than 170 square kilometres of tailings ponds in Alberta. Even when tailings ponds covered 50 square kilometers they were big enough to be seen from space. Source: http://oilsands.alberta.ca/tailings.html and Pembina Institute
Tailings management remains one of the most difficult environmental challenges for the oil sands mining sector. Source: http://oilsands.alberta.ca/tailings.html
Tailings are stored indefinitely in open lakes that cover an area approximately 50 per cent larger than the city of Vancouver. Source: Pembina Institute
Tailings lakes increase in volume at a rate that would fill the Toronto Skydome on a daily basis. Source: Pembina Institute
Tailings lakes seep. The exact amount of seepage is either not known or has not been made public. Source: Pembina Institute
10. Oil And Gas Accounts For 4.8 Per Cent Of GDP
The oil and gas industries accounted for around $65 billion of economic activity in Canada annually in recent years, or slightly less than 5 per cent of GDP. Source: <a href="http://www.ceri.ca/docs/2010-10-05CERIOilandGasReport.pdf" target="_hplink">Canada Energy Research Institute</a>
9. Oil Exports Have Grown Tenfold Since 1980
Canada exported some 12,000 cubic metres of oil per day in 1980. By 2010, that number had grown to 112,000 cubic metres daily. Source: <a href="http://membernet.capp.ca/SHB/Sheet.asp?SectionID=9&SheetID=224" target="_hplink">Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers</a>
8. Refining Didn't Grow At All As Exports Boomed
Canada refined 300,000 cubic metres daily in 1980; in 2010, that number was slightly down, to 291,000, even though exports of oil had grown tenfold in that time. Source: <a href="http://membernet.capp.ca/SHB/Sheet.asp?SectionID=7&SheetID=104" target="_hplink">Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers</a>
7. 97 Per Cent Of Oil Exports Go To The U.S.
Despite talk by the federal government that it wants to open Asian markets to Canadian oil, the vast majority of exports still go to the United States -- 97 per cent as of 2009. Source: <a href="http://www.nrcan.gc.ca/statistics-facts/energy/895" target="_hplink">Natural Resources Canada</a>
6. Canada Has World's 2nd-Largest Proven Oil Reserves
Canada's proven reserves of 175 billion barrels of oil -- the vast majority of it trapped in the oil sands -- is the second-largest oil stash in the world, after Saudi Arabia's 267 billion. Source: <a href="http://www.ogj.com/index.html" target="_hplink">Oil & Gas Journal</a>
5. Two-Thirds Of Oil Sands Bitumen Goes To U.S.
One-third of Canada's oil sands bitumen stays in the country, and is refined into gasoline, heating oil and diesel. Source: <a href="http://www.nrcan.gc.ca/statistics-facts/energy/895" target="_hplink">Natural Resources Canada</a>
4. Alberta Is Two-Thirds Of The Industry
Despite its reputation as the undisputed centre of Canada's oil industry, Alberta accounts for only two-thirds of energy production. British Columbia and Saskatchewan are the second and third-largest producers. Source: <a href="http://www.nrcan.gc.ca/statistics-facts/energy/895" target="_hplink">Natural Resources Canada</a>
3. Alberta Will Reap $1.2 Trillion From Oil Sands
Alberta' government <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/03/27/alberta-oil-sands-royalties-ceri_n_1382640.html" target="_hplink">will reap $1.2 trillion in royalties from the oil sands over the next 35 years</a>, according to the Canadian Energy Research Institute.
2. Canadian Oil Consumption Has Stayed Flat
Thanks to improvements in energy efficiency, and a weakening of the country's manufacturing base, oil consumption in Canada has had virtually no net change in 30 years. Consumption went from 287,000 cubic metres daily in 1980 to 260,000 cubic metres daily in 2010. Source: Source: <a href="http://membernet.capp.ca/SHB/Sheet.asp?SectionID=6&SheetID=99" target="_hplink">Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers</a>
1. 250,000 Jobs.. Plus Many More?
The National Energy Board says oil and gas employs 257,000 people in Canada, not including gas station employees. And the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers says the oil sands alone <a href="http://www.capp.ca/aboutUs/mediaCentre/NewsReleases/Pages/OilsandsaCanadianjobcreator.aspx" target="_hplink">will grow from 75,000 jobs to 905,000 jobs by 2035</a> -- assuming, of course, the price of oil holds up.