The aligning of dead ducks

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Tar-sands major player Syncrude plead “not guilty” in court last week to two charges laid after 1,600 migratory birds, mostly ducks, died horrible deaths in toxic tailing ponds in northern Alberta. The birds touched down in the ponds, created and maintained by Syncrude, in April 2008 on their annual migration north, and promptly ceased to live as a result. The province of Alberta, not generally known to bust the balls of big-oil, charged the multi-national in February under Section 155 of the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act for “failing to provide appropriate wildfowl deterrents” at a tailing site, a charge with a maximum penalty of $500,000.

Not to be left out in the rain, Ottawa also charged the energy giant under the Migratory Birds Convention Act, under subsection 5.1(1), for “allegedly depositing or permitting the deposit of a substance harmful to migratory birds in waters or an area frequented by birds,” the CBC reported. This infraction holds a maximum penalty of $300,000, wracking Syncrude’s potential bill, not including legal fees, up to nearly a million bucks.

Syncrude’s website boasts that they are one of the “safest and most respected corporations in Alberta.” They are also one of the top employers in the province, and one of the top players in the tar sands game. Since “the duck incident” occurred, where initially “only” 500 birds were estimated to have perished, Syncrude has publicly “expressed regret,” claiming due diligence as a defense in a recent court appearance. This defense purports that Syncrude did everything “reasonable” to avert the death of 1,600 legally-protected birds, and hence is not liable.

Syncrude’s lawyer, Robert White, told the Globe & Mail that “to now charge us and bring us to court is not going to bring back 1,603 ducks,” explaining that Syncrude has “spent a tremendous amount of money to ensure it doesn’t happen again.” However, those ducks are still dead, and certainly won’t be making any baby ducks in the near future. Syncrude and Big Bob, however, are still here, still living high on the hog.

Indeed, the development of the tar sands are a contentious issue these days, and not just after the decimation of innocent water fowl migrating a route that has been, up until now, safe for thousands of years. Syncrude’s Aurora tar sands operation was the site of a July 2008 Greenpeace demonstration where 11 activists were arrested. Shell’s nearby Abian sand mine was recently the site of another Greenpeace blockade, timed to coincide with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s latest visit to U.S. President Barack Obama, where up to 25 protesters have chained themselves to massive machinery used to rip up once-pristine boreal forest to make way for expensive petroleum extraction.

On the other hand, oil sands look great in the eyes of those who deal with big money. Last summer, big shots Bill Gates and Warren Buffet visited northern Alberta’s moonscape-like development initiative, to the delight of some and the consternation of others. Once considered key to North American energy security, many groups, including Greenpeace, are now advocating that President Obama take a second look at the tar sands before investing further into the destructive infrastructure needed to increase and maintain production in Alberta’s north. Regardless of one’s socio-political stance, what goes on in northern Alberta, these days, is serious business.

Before getting too far into the bitumen-thick morass that is the tar-sands debate, let me bring it back to the issue of some 1,603 dead ducks. Beginning in March 2010, after the underwhelming spectacle of the Olympics has left Vancouver a blighted, bankrupt mess, Syncrude will see its day in court in St. Albert, AB; a process that is expected to take about two months of tax-funded deliberation. At best, the citizens of not only Alberta, but the Dominion entire, can hope that justice will be delivered upon a major corporate polluter, whereby said corporate boogieman will be obliged to fork up a paltry $800,000 (which, I doubt, will cover the costs to society of pursuing the legal action, anyway). At worst, Syncrude will get off scot free, and nothing further will be said about their inability to provide even the barest minimum legal requirement of environmental standard when operating an earth-raping, multi-national enterprise in an ecologically unstable environment, to the arguable detriment of not only Canadians, but living, Earth-bound beings everywhere.

Bob White wasn’t wrong in saying that to charge Syncrude now, and hold an expensive trial “is not going to bring back 1,603 ducks.” However, what Big Bob disregards is the need for us, as a functional society, to do so. If living beings are to be treated merely as economic collateral, as Bob White and Syncrude insinuate in their “not guilty” argument, where will the line be drawn? If 1,603 unique, federally-protected lives aren’t worth $800,000 Canadian to a market-obsessed multi-national corporation operating out of our back yard, what is your life worth? Chump fucking change, at best.

Sheldon Birnie is in his third year of Environmental Studies at the U of M.