OTTAWA (AFP) — Hundreds of migrating ducks are dead or dying in Canada's Alberta province after landing on sewage ponds polluted with toxic refuse left over from mining, officials said Wednesday.
As many as 500 ducks were dead or ailing after being coated with residue left behind in the ponds by Syncrude Canada Ltd., the world's largest producer of synthetic crude oil from oil sands.
The waterfowl were exposed to residual oil on the surface of a partially-frozen basin at Syncrude's Aurora North Site mine, 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Fort McMurray, the company said in a statement.
"We're very saddened and sorry that this occurred," Syncrude president and chief executive Tom Katinas said.
He added that company efforts, in cooperation with regional wildlife and environment authorities, to rescue the flock is being stymied by ice.
"The bigger problem is every time rescuers get close to one of these birds, it dies, because of course it's scared and as it dives it becomes more and more coated in some of these tailings from Syncrude's operations," Mike Hubema of Greenpeace told public broadcaster CBC.
"It then becomes very weighted down and sinks," he explained.
The Alberta government has called the mishap "an environmental tragedy" while environment officials have launched an investigation.
Hundreds of thousands of water birds travel through the Fort McMurray oil sands areas each year.
According to officials, the company did not use noise makers designed to scare birds from the contaminated ponds, and did not immediately report the ducks' dire situation, as required by law.
Katinas said "extreme winter weather conditions" delayed the deployment of the noise makers.
Officials said Syncrude could be fined up to one million dollars (Canadian, US).
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