It's official: Syncrude is a tar sands criminal

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After a two-and-a-half-month trial, tar sands oil giant Syncrude has been found guilty of the criminal charges laid in connection with the deaths of 1,606 ducks that in one of its mining tailings lakes in April 2008. Syncrude was charged under the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act and the Federal Migratory Birds Convention Act with failing to undertake due diligence to ensure its toxic tailings do not cause harm to migratory birds.

The ducks are just one page of the tar sands horror story but the trial has been very revealing about the nature of tar sands operations. Nevertheless, while the verdict is in and sentencing is still to come, justice is still a long way from being served.

It was 9 a.m. on April 28th, 2008, when heavy equipment operator Robert Colson noticed what looked like lumps floating on the surface of Syncrude's massive toxic tailings lake -- a body of liquid 640 football fields wide. Colson reported the information to his supervisor but it wasn't until six hours later that Syncrude's bird and ecology team leader Dave Mathews called Alberta Sustainable Resources Development to confirm the anonymous tip. Images of tar covered ducks hit the mainstream media almost immediately, but it was not until more than seven months later that Syncrude would receive a legal charge launched by Ecojustice lawyer Barry Robison as a private prosecution on behalf of concerned Albertan Jeh Custer, then a campaigner with the Sierra Club Prairie.

Trial testimony would reveal that on the day in question Syncrude did not have the necessary bird deterrent system in place, that they were deficient on the required staff, equipment, and vehicles, and the people employed to deploy the bird deterrent systems were not even accurately trained to do so. Even more enlightening was the defense testimony put forth by Syncrude. The company tried everything they could, from the claim that the ducks "killed themselves" to the argument that a guilty verdict under these charges would mean tar sands companies would have to decide between breaking the law "every hour of every day" or shutting down.

Despite the company's complete failure to take even minimal steps to protect migrating birds from landing on its toxic lakes, Syncrude isn't the only one to blame for the event.

Syncrude's tar sands operation was approved by the Alberta government. Alberta's spending on environmental compliance, enforcement, and monitoring has decreased by $7 million -- 25 per cent -- since 2003, despite rapid tar sands expansion. Alberta now spends a combined total of just $20 million on environmental compliance, enforcement, and monitoring, $5 million less than what they spent on a single PR and branding campaign for the province and $14 million less than the subsidy they gave to the horse racing industry. The government instead leaves industry to police and patrol itself with only five enforcement officers to monitor the entire massive tar sands region.

The federal government is also at fault. In the federal prosecutor's own arguments during the Syncrude trial, the existence of toxic tailings lakes should be seen as illegal under Canada's Migratory Birds Convention Act and yet the federal government sits by as Alberta approves more projects, and as tailing lakes expand -- last year alone expanding from 130 sq. kms. to 170 sq. kms. The feds sit silent as first nation treaty rights are violated and as these toxic lakes leak more than 11 million litres of chemicals like arsenic, mercury, naphatic acid, and polyaromatic hydrocarbons into the river system, poisoning the land and downstream communities every single day.

Given the provincial and federal complacency in enabling tar sands operations, the reprimand from this guilty verdict stands to be little more than a judicial slap on the wrist. If Syncrude was to be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law, its executives would do six months jail time and pay the maximum fine of $300,000 per duck killed for a total of $480 million dollars. Instead, it seems Syncrude will be given a small fine or have to do some sort of "creative sentencing."

At the end of day the impact of this trial is not going to come from the sentencing, but rather from the clarity it provides to the public around the destructive nature of tar sands operations. Whether this results in a shift away from tar sands towards healthier, green, more just energy options or whether we continue with "business as usual" remains to be seen.

One good thing that came of the trial is that people worldwide can now confidently call Syncrude a "corporate criminal" and that's something we all should celebrate.

One down, many more to go.

Tar sands justice -- Number crunching

• 1,606: Ducks killed on Syncrude Aurora North tailings lake

• 11 million: Litres of toxic water leaking into the Athabasca every day.

• 170: Sq. km. of toxic tailing lakes growing larger every minute.

• 40 million: Tonnes of ghgs [greenhouse gases] released each year by tar sands companies -- about the same released by all the cars in Canada combined.

• 2 million: The water allocated to tar sands companies is equivalent to that used by a city of 2 million people per annum.

• 140,000: Sq. km. of boreal forest and ecosystem that could be sold to tar sands companies.

• 30: Per cent higher cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan than other communities

• Thousands of treaty violations.

• 300,000: The number of people that die annually due to the climate crisis.

• Millions of people worldwide that will become climate refugees this year.

• Zero: Responsibility taken by the government for allowing this to happen.

Mike Hudema is a climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace Canada. Sheila Muxlow is the interim director for Sierra Club Prairie.

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