In April 2008, 1,600 ducks died after landing on a Syncrude tailings pond north of Fort McMurray, Alberta. In the days following the wildlife disaster, both federal and provincial government officials vowed to take action against Syncrude, threatening fines of up to $1 million. Nine months later, when neither government had laid any charges, an Ecojustice lawyer helped a concerned Alberta resident take action.
In January 2009, Ecojustice lawyer Barry Robinson filed a private prosecution on behalf of Jeh Custer, a representative of Sierra Club Canada, under the federal Migratory Birds Convention Act, which prohibits the deposit of a harmful substance in an area frequented by migratory birds. A month later, the provincial and federal government took over the case. The governments of Alberta and Canada laid charges against Syncrude under the Migratory Birds Convention Act and the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act.
The case went to trial on June 25, 2010 (R. v Syncrude Canada Ltd., 2010 ABPC 229). Syncrude was found guilty of failing to take adequate measures to prevent the death of the ducks and agreed to pay $3 million, the largest fine in Canadian history for an environmental offence.
In this case, we agreed with our client that failing to prosecute Syncrude would send the wrong message to companies that put wildlife and the environment at risk. We believe that polluters must pay when they cause environmental harm, and that if governments fail to uphold the law, it is up to concerned Canadians to take action and hold companies to account.
This victory saw to it that polluters pay for causing significant environmental harm, with the company paying a substantial fine. It also demonstrates the role people outside of government can play in upholding environmental laws. The victory also serves as a warning to other companies that failing to take preventative measures to avoid harm to wildlife will result in consequences.