On Friday, Syncrude was ordered to pay $3 million in penalties for the 1,600 ducks killed in its tailings ponds four years ago. This is the highest total penalty ever imposed in Canada for an environmental offence.
Syncrude was fined the maximum for a single incident: $300,000 for the federal charge and $500,000 for the provincial charge. In addition, Syncrude agreed to donate $1.3 M into research by the University of Alberta into bird migration and the effectiveness of bird deterrents; the Alberta Conservation Association will receive $900,000. The $900,000 will be used to purchase and preserve an important wildlife habitat area. The environmental program at Keyano College in Fort McMurray will receive half of the $500,000 provincial fine, to train aboriginal students in monitoring waterfowl.
Although fines are not tax deductible, the donations are likely are.
Syncrude fought the charges every inch of the way until it was found guilty, amid substantial world wide publicity. At that point, they changed their legal counsel and their approach, and decided to make a deal.
Some argue that the actual maximum fines could have been much higher, by imposing a fine for each individual duck, but the charges were not (and possibly could not be) laid on a “per duck” basis. What is most distressing about the case is that so much attention has been paid to the accident, while so little is done about the day-to-day activities that cause far more damage. If the 1,600 ducks had not been killed by the tailings pond, they might still have been among the more than 50,000 birds whose habitat has already been destroyed by the tar sands, with the consent and encouragement of the federal and provincial governments. It makes little economic or environmental sense to focus so heavily on a one day accident while allowing the larger tragedy to multiply. But that is often the way the legal and political system works. And at least most of the money will actually go to a productive use.