CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - The death toll among ducks that landed on a toxic waste pond at Syncrude Canada Ltd's oil sands operation last spring was 1,606, more than three times higher than previously made public, Syncrude's chief executive said on Tuesday.
Syncrude CEO Tom Katinas disclosed the final count after getting permission from prosecutors in a criminal case against Canada's biggest oil sands producer over the deaths, which became symbolic in efforts by green groups to highlight the environmental impact of developing the huge energy resource.
The previous public tally was 500, which was the number first estimated after the incident. Katinas said he had been unable to make the higher duck death toll public due to the investigation and with the case before the courts.
"You have to understand that the recovery of birds occurred over several months, so as the number started rising people like myself were in shock," he told reporters. "I called people in and demanded to know what happened here."
It appears that many of the birds sank after getting coated with petroleum residue in the pond at the northern Alberta site, and later floated back to the surface, Katinas said.
Syncrude, a joint venture of several major oil companies, faces federal and provincial charges over the deaths on the tailings pond, a body of wastewater, petroleum and other chemical byproducts of oil sands extraction. The firm made its first court appearance last week.
The fowl were killed last April when a snowstorm delayed deployment of bird-deterring sound cannons that simulate gunfire. Other water bodies in the region were still frozen, leaving the migrating flock with no other options for setting down, Katinas said.
Alberta's oil sands represent the largest oil deposits outside the Middle East, and the tar-like crude is seen as an important source of secure energy for the United States.
Environmentalists have intensified their efforts to hammer home to consumers in Canada and the United States the impact of multibillion-dollar oil sands mining developments on wildlife, land, air and water.
Mike Hudema, tar sands campaigner for Greenpeace, said he believes the Alberta government is not doing enough to halt the spread of tailings ponds as oil sands operations expand.
"The fact that these toxic lakes could kill over 1,600 ducks in a single incident shows just how toxic and deadly they are," Hudema said in a statement. "These toxic lakes are expanding every day. They are located right beside some of our largest river systems."
The government said this week it is stepping up monitoring of oil sands tailings ponds for this migration season.
Syncrude took out full-page newspaper ads after duck deaths apologizing for the incident, and Katinas said again on Tuesday that the organization is sorry and sparing no effort to improve bird protection.
"It's been particularly sad and embarrassing for me personally, for the employees of Syncrude and for all the stakeholders of this great company of ours," he said.
He said Syncrude has made such changes as deploying bird deterrents and having staff monitoring tailings ponds year-round.
It will ready sound cannons use on shore long before the spring melt and increase their number by 30 percent. The company is also testing a new radar monitoring system, Katinas said.
Syncrude's partners are Canadian Oil Sands Trust, Imperial Oil Ltd, Petro-Canada, ConocoPhillips, Nexen Inc, Nippon Oil Corp unit Mocal Energy Ltd and Murphy Oil Corp.
(Reporting by Jeffrey Jones; editing by Rob Wilson)