Premier Ed Stelmach downplayed the impact of up to 500 dead birds in the toxic sludge of a Syncrude tailings pond as critics called for stricter oilsands controls yesterday.
Only three ducks were expected to survive after a flock of waterfowl landed Monday morning on the partially frozen pond filled with oilsands waste near Fort McMurray.
Facing a barrage of opposition questions over the incident that has garnered international attention, Stelmach said the lack of past animal health complaints demonstrates the company's cannon-based noise deterrence system works.
"We expect companies to live up to the licences we permit and if they don't there are consequences," said Stelmach. "Thirty years ago, Syncrude pioneered the bird diversion strategy, the research. And for 30 years, things went well. One year, we have one incident and this is what's being used by (the Alberta Liberal party) to not only damage the reputation of the department of the environment, but of a company and also this legislature."
Good intentions notwithstanding, the incident could not have come at a worse time. Deputy Premier Ron Stevens is currently in Washington, D.C., lobbying on Alberta's behalf for exemptions to a law that might ban U.S. federal agencies from buying the province's synthetic crude. He's already received negative attention from environmental groups, and the province had just announced it is spending $25 million in tax dollars on a publicity campaign to show the Stelmach government is a good environmental steward.
Opposition politicians suggested that stewardship system is over-reliant on companies reporting problems, and the bird incident was actually reported by a tipster. If the self-reporting part of the system isn't working, Albertans should not be confident that this is the first incident, said Liberal Leader Kevin Taft.
"The fact that we had to rely on a whistleblower to tell us the truth in this situation puts all of the historical information into doubt," said Taft. "These ponds are pools of toxic water so vast that it takes the largest earthen dams in the world to hold them in place."
NDP Leader Brian Mason said Alberta needs to step up its environmental policing. "During the 2007 (budget) estimates debate, the minister of the environment said, and I quote, 'The best way to ensure compliance with legislation is not by going out and hiring more policemen.' Today, we see the folly of that approach: 500 migratory birds stuck in the goo of a Syncrude tailings pond."
Environment Minister Rob Renner said the government must, to some extent, rely on tipsters but clarified that the government takes other steps and the system is not entirely self-policed.