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Syncrude pleads not guilty in oil sands duck deaths

Energy heavyweight Syncrude Canada Ltd. has pleaded not guilty to charges in connection with one of the most highly publicized environmental crimes in Alberta history.

In February, the oil company was charged after a lengthy investigation concluded it broke federal and provincial laws stemming from the deaths of about 1,600 ducks. The waterfowl died after landing in one of Syncrude's toxic oil sands tailings ponds in northern Alberta in late April, 2008.

Robert White, Syncrude's lawyer, entered the plea yesterday in a court in St. Albert, a small city northwest of Edmonton. The trial is scheduled to begin next March.

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Mr. White later told reporters outside the courthouse that the company has already expressed "deep regret" and "spent a tremendous amount of money" to ensure a similar incident doesn't happen again. "To now charge us and bring us to court is not going to bring back 1,603 ducks," he said.

Mr. White said while Syncrude is "not above the law," the courts have "recognized for a long time that when people do their best to avoid something, then that isn't a matter for charges, that's a matter for fix-up."

The company was charged federally with offences under the Migratory Birds Convention Act, as well as provincially under Alberta's Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act.

The duck deaths were an international embarrassment for Alberta, which has been fighting environmentalists that portray the Fort McMurray-area oil sands as an ecological disgrace.

Syncrude blamed the incident on a late spring thaw and snowstorm that prevented the company from deploying noise cannons usually used to scare birds away from the tailings ponds.

Bruce Cox, executive director of Greenpeace Canada, attended yesterday's legal proceedings and wasn't surprised by Syncrude's plea. "What we're going to see here is a lot of legal wrangling as they try and wrangle and weasel their way out of their legal responsibility," he said.

Crown prosecutor Kent Brown said he's aware Syncrude has installed better technology to prevent waterfowl deaths in the future, but added prosecution is still necessary.

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"I don't think the public would be accepting of the fact that they've simply made some changes and said, 'Well, that's good enough,' " Mr. Brown said.

Syncrude could face fines of up to $800,000 if convicted under provincial and federal environmental legislation.

In a written statement distributed by a Syncrude spokesman outside the courthouse, the company's chief executive officer and president Tom Katinas apologized for the duck deaths and asked Canadians for "their patience as we go through this legal process."

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