Oilsands giant Syncrude is facing an environmental protection order following the deaths of 30 great blue herons at one of its sites.
"It's guidance to the company," Alberta Energy Regulator spokesman Bob Curran said Tuesday. "We're specifying what our expectations are, what information we expect the company to deliver and in what time frame."
Syncrude revealed on the weekend that 29 carcasses from the large shorebirds were discovered last Friday near a pump house at an abandoned sump pond at the Mildred Lake mine site north of Fort McMurray. One additional bird was euthanized on the order of Alberta Fish and Wildlife.
Despite previous reports that bird deterrents at the facility were fully working, Syncrude spokesman Will Gibson acknowledged Tuesday that no such equipment was in operation.
"We didn't have any deterrents in the area at the time," he said. "We typically put deterrents around our tailings facility."
Since the discovery, Syncrude has installed fencing, sound cannons and bird-scaring statues, including a robotic falcon. Human observers are also stationed at the site around the clock.
Gibson was unable to say if similar measures have been installed at any of Syncrude's other sumps.
"We want to find out what attracted (the birds) there. I don't want to speculate about whether we have a similar set of circumstances at other sumps in our operation."
Curran said an investigation is to determine if Syncrude was following all rules regarding wildlife.
"We need to determine the cause of death of those birds, because we don't know what it is."
Meanwhile, the company is obliged to collect samples from the site for analysis, develop a plan to clean it up and publish daily reports on its progress.
Some of that work has already begun, Curran said.
"They would be collecting the water and soil samples. They've already begun work on the wildlife mitigation plan. They've put some measures in place to ensure that other animals don't come in contact with the place where the heron deaths occurred."
Gibson said Syncrude is still trying to find out what was in that particular sump.
Ornithologists suggest that while herons gather in groups for nesting, it is unusual for large numbers to be together unless there is an abundant food source. Jeff Wells of the Boreal Songbird Initiative said it's more probable that the birds died over an extended time period.
"It's too soon for me to make an informed comment on that," Gibson said.
He said no other animal carcasses have been found at the site.
Syncrude president Mark Ward said in a release that the company has begun an internal investigation.
"Our organization and our employees are completely committed to finding out what happened and addressing it," Ward said.
It is not the company's first problem with bird deaths.
In 2008, more than 1,600 ducks died after they landed on a Syncrude tailings pond, for which the company was fined $3 million. Two years later, more than 550 birds had to be destroyed when an early winter storm forced them to land on waste ponds belonging to Syncrude and Suncor (TSX:SU).
Great blue herons, which feed on fish and frogs along shorelines and riverbanks, are Canada's largest heron. They stand more than a metre tall with a wingspan of up to two metres. Their numbers are considered secure.