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Duck is rallying symbol at oil-sands trial Add to ...

The images are not taken at close range. But what they show is chilling: A single duck, covered in tarry bitumen, struggles to flee a raven that flies overhead. The duck, drenched in oil, is not able to escape. The raven attacks, and settles in for a feast.

"The raven is at this point attempting to eat whatever he can of that duck," said Todd Powell, a senior wildlife biologist with the provincial government who witnessed the event and photographed it. A second raven soon joins the first.

"Other than the swiveling of its head there was no attempt [by the duck] to flee or otherwise defend itself," Mr. Powell said.

Mr. Powell's photos, taken on the last three days of April, 2008, now form part of the case against Syncrude Canada Ltd., the oil sands company on whose tailings pond 1,606 ducks and geese landed and died.

The company is charged with breaking both provincial and federal environmental laws. Syncrude has pleaded not guilty to the charges, sought to have one thrown out of court and argued that the bird deaths were a mistake, not a criminal act.

But the duck deaths have become an important symbol of the oil sands' environmental performance.



Evidence called before the court yesterday showed that Syncrude had already reported two bird deaths in the weeks leading up to the mass April death.

Deaths of migratory birds - which receive special protection in Canada - had also been reported in mid-April in previous years.

But Syncrude had failed to install noise deterrents and scarecrows at the Aurora tailings pond when the birds landed there in 2008. (The company has said it was prevented from doing so by a snowstorm, although it had already begun installing deterrents at a different tailings pond when the ducks died.)

"Syncrude ought to have known," provincial prosecutor Susan McRory told reporters.

Mr. Powell was called to the site on April 28, after Syncrude discovered hundreds of ducks mired in the thick, sticky mats of bitumen that float on the 12-square-kilometre pond, which is filled with toxic mine effluent.

The photographs and videos he took over three days of visits show in graphic detail the plight of the birds, whose deaths have been seized upon by oil sands critics as evidence of the energy industry's ugly environmental record.

But those images themselves became fodder for criticism yesterday, when a lawyer for Syncrude accused the Mr. Powell of "showboating" when he photographed the raven attack. Twenty-eight photos of the raven attack were shown in court, although in some it is obvious that to shoot the duck with a shotgun would have required also shooting the ravens.

"What was more important to these people? Horrifying us with pictures of these ravens eating that poor duck? Why not put that poor thing out of its misery and shoot it?" Robert White, who is representing Syncrude in the trial, told reporters. "They were far more interested in bringing photographs of that poor thing being eaten alive."

Mr. Powell did, however, shoot more than a dozen ducks. "It seemed a much more humane approach than leaving them to struggle like that," he said.

He also helped to rescue another five, which contractors and Syncrude workers attempted to clean in the company's truck wash bay.

Syncrude's lawyer argued that the mass duck death could not have been expected, since no such event had occurred in previous decades. Although the company's records indicated it substantially trimmed the number of bird deterrents it employed between 2006 and 2007, Syncrude has since invested millions in new technology, which includes a high-tech radar and light system that detects and then frightens off arriving ducks.

"This is not a callous company," Mr. White said. "But a mistake got made, a terrible mistake."

 

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