Posted on January 18, 2010 (updated: January 18, 2010)

Environmentalists spur government to prosecute over duck deaths in tar sands

Nearly one year after 500 ducks died on a Syncrude tailings pond, a concerned Alberta resident has provoked the province and federal government to prosecute the oil giant. Earlier today (February 9) Syncrude was served with joint federal and provincial charges under the Migratory Birds Convention Act and the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act. The federal charge mirrors a private prosecution against Syncrude launched January 7th by Barry Robinson, staff lawyer at Ecojustice (formerly Sierra Legal Defence Fund) on behalf Alberta resident Jeh Custer, Sierra Club and Forest Ethics.

We believe that that federal and provincial governments should be proactive in enforcing their own environmental regulations and individuals should not have to spur them on,” said Custer. “The maximum penalty, in this case, is essential to show that governments are serious about environmental infractions and that oil companies are not above the law.”

Last spring, approximately 500 ducks died after landing on one of Syncrude’s tailings ponds which cover more than 50 square kilometres north of Fort McMurray. Environmental groups opted to take legal action under the Federal Migratory Birds Convention Act after both federal and provincial governments appeared to be stalling any plans to lay charges.

“We’re glad that our action prompted government to step in to do the bare minimum – enforce its own laws,” said Gillian McEachern of ForestEthics. “This is a rare example in a province where citizens are charged more in library fines each year than the federal and provincial governments charge tar sands companies for not following the rules.”

Since an offense cannot be prosecuted twice under the same law, Ecojustice staff expect to have their prosecution stayed or withdrawn in coming weeks. Now, with their clients, they are watching how rigorously the prosecution is carried out.

“We were prepared to take this matter to trial,” said Robinson, “But the government has exercised its right to take over this prosecution, and we trust that they will pursue this to the greatest extent of the law.”

Robinson said this prosecution is a small step in the right direction. He noted that a giant leap is needed in the government’s approach to environmental protection and enforcement to clean up the mammoth tailing ponds and reduce the pollution and environmental damage caused by tar sands extraction.

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