From The Edmonton Sun, May 5, 2008:
Despite a public apology from Syncrude following the deaths of 500 ducks in one of the oil giant’s tailing ponds near Fort McMurray, an investigation by the province will continue, Premier Ed Stelmach said yesterday.
“I certainly thank them for the apology they gave the print media, but we will continue the investigation until we find out what happened,” he told reporters before taking part in the Bell Walk For Kids Help Phone event at Calgary’s Eau Claire Market.
“And once the investigation is complete, we’ll communicate that with Albertans – and also at the same time ensure that it doesn’t happen again,”
Syncrude, the world’s largest producer of synthetic crude oil, took out full-page ads in several Canadian newspapers on Saturday, including the Edmonton Sun, to apologize for the deaths of the ducks and to promise to improve operations so it doesn’t happen again.
The open letter was signed by Tom Katinas, the company’s president and CEO. …
While Stelmach said he appreciated the apology, he didn’t necessarily accept it. He said there are still several unanswered questions as to what happened and why.
Speaking in response, company spokesman Alain Moore said Syncrude acknowledges that the apology is only one component of the followup.
“Really, the biggest focus, the biggest energy, is around responding to the incident – but also doing a thorough investigation.”
Meanwhile, the company is also helping to pay for the work of cleaning and rehabilitating the surviving ducks – at a cost “in the low thousands.” …
In a further development, however, ConocoPhillips Canada reported Saturday that eight migratory birds – including three loons – had settled on a pond at the company’s Surmont oilsands project northeast of Fort McMurray.
One loon was found dead, but the cause is unclear.
“We are concerned about the loons, and are taking this very seriously,” senior vice-president Matt Fox said in a statement. “We’re working with the appropriate authorities to manage this situation.”
Speaking of government investigations, Greenpeace yesterday rightly called for an independent inquiry of what happened last week at Syncrude’s tailing pit. From Canwest News Service yesterday [emphasis mine]:
Greenpeace is calling for an independent public inquiry into the deaths of about 500 ducks that landed on a northern Alberta tailings pond last week.
Mike Hudema, climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace Canada, said at a news conference at the provincial legislature [in Edmonton] Monday that a government-led investigation into the incident at the Syncrude Canada oilsands mine is not enough.
“The ties between government and industry run too deep,” and bias is inevitable, said Hudema. The provincial government, he added, must also take responsibility for what happened.
Shamefully, Alberta’s Environment Minister Rob Renner thinks otherwise. Demonstrating that tin ear that seems to characterize Alberta Tories, Minister Renner said yesterday that he rejects Greenpeace’s call for an independent inquiry. Of course, antipathy between Greenpeace and the Tories is so high that if Greenpeace said the sky is blue, the party would say it’s pink. From the same Canwest article:
…Renner reiterated his belief Monday that such questions are only a small part of a larger investigation.
“Right now, we’re focusing on what happened, how did it happen and what can be done to prevent it from happening again,” he said.
Inside the legislature, Renner again faced tough questions from the opposition Liberals and New Democrats.
Liberal Leader Kevin Taft said he supported Greenpeace’s call for an inquiry.
“The stakes are so high here,” Taft said. “We’re talking about 50 square kilometers of liquid that’s so toxic that when 500 birds land on it, three come out alive.
“The public has a right to know what’s going on, how it’s being managed and most importantly, what’s going to happen in the future.”
Taft said the inquiry needs to cover oilsands operations, environmental monitoring, liability for any cleanup of tailings ponds and accountability for the duck deaths.
Both Taft and NDP Leader Brian Mason pressed the government for more environmental inspectors.
Hudema also demanded that the Stelmach government assemble a team to search other tailings ponds in the province for wildlife and other environmental infractions, saying the problem may be much more widespread than the public realizes.
“To believe an industry is going to report every single incident, every single spill, is to have too much faith in the industry,” he said, noting initial reports about the Syncrude incident first came in through an anonymous tipster, instead of company officials.
Alberta Environment conducted surprise inspections on all 13 oilsands tailings ponds last week, said ministry spokeswoman Kim Capstick.
The department is also working with another oilsands developer, ConocoPhillips, to make sure it deters more migratory birds from settling on a blowdown pond. Such a pond prepares recycled water and salty groundwater before it’s turned into steam.
The company first noticed three loons on the pond last Thursday and unsuccessfully tried to scare them away. Then, more birds landed Saturday and again attempts to scare them away failed.
One loon was found dead near the pond and is being examined to determine the cause of death.
Capstick said the water in the pond is less saline than seawater, but it has a high pH of 10.
That is almost as alkaline as ammonia. Lakes this alkaline can be caustic and burn almost anything that enters them. Animals must be specially adapted to survive in this kind of habitat.
ConocoPhillips’s senior vice-president of oilsands, Matt Fox, said Sunday the company was not originally required by the provincial government to put deterrents on the pond.
Greenpeace wants no new tailings ponds built and no existing ones expanded until better technology is available, and is seeking job protection for whistleblowers who have information on incidents at oilsands operations.
The group also wants to see stiffer penalties for oil companies that don’t meet environmental regulations.
The current maximum allowable fine of $1 million, Hudema said, is too small to affect an oil giant such as Syncrude. “For them, a million dollars is pocket change and is the cost of doing business,” he said.
Stelmach, who was shadowed by Greenpeace during the recent provincial election, has said Greenpeace doesn’t speak for Albertans. But Hudema pointed to opinion polls suggesting Albertans want a slowdown of oilsands development.
If the government doesn’t take action, Hudema said Greenpeace may launch a provincewide ad campaign itself, asking concerned citizens and oilsands workers to come forward if they have evidence of harm to wildlife and the environment.
Thank you, Greenpeace, and thank you Mike Hudema, who in a bit of good timing returned to Alberta last August to open a Greenpeace office in Edmonton.
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