ST. ALBERT, Alberta (Reuters) - A judge found Syncrude Canada Ltd, Canada's largest oil sands producer, guilty on Friday in the deaths of 1,600 ducks that landed on a toxic Northern Alberta tailings pond in 2008, ruling the company should have had deterrents in place.
Syncrude faces maximum penalties of C$500,000 for provincial charges and C$300,000 under federal charges in the case, which crystallized international concern about the environmental impact of developing Canada's vast oil sands, the largest crude oil source outside the Middle East.
Alberta Provincial Court Judge Ken Tjosvold ruled the company failed to take necessary steps to keep the waterfowl away from the tailings pond at its Aurora mine in April 2008.
The company had said a spring snowstorm had prevented it from having sound cannons and scarecrows, used to keep birds from the ponds that are filled with wastewater and clay loaded with heavy metals and some residual oil.
It fought the charges in a nine-week trial, saying convictions would have implications on the oil sands mining industry.
"It could have set up its system to place deterrents sooner and more quickly regardless of the weather that arrived in April of 2008," Tjosvold said. "It was reasonable to take those precautions and Syncrude did not."
He will rule on August 20 whether the company can be convicted on both provincial and federal charges, given their similarity. Sentencing will follow.
Syncrude, a joint venture of several global oil companies, said it was disappointed with the verdict. It had argued that it could not be faulted for an act of God, which prevented it from keeping the ducks from its tailings pond.
"It's been very hard on our employees," Syncrude spokeswoman Cheryl Robb said. "We would have pleaded guilty to a different charge, but we were very concerned about the use of these charges would have on Canada's mining industry."
Syncrude's lawyer, Robert White, said he would recommend that the company appeal. He said that the company should have been dealt with in a regulatory arena rather than the court.
The case served to heighten international concern about the environmental impact of oil sands development. Environmentalists argue that multibillion-dollar oil sands mining developments harm wildlife, land, air and water.
The Syncrude case shows governments are not doing enough to restrict the spread of tailings ponds, environmentalists said.
Greenpeace produced figures this week that showed the Alberta government's monitoring and compliance budget has been shrinking while its public relations spending has increased.
"We're glad that Syncrude has been found guilty, but there are a lot more questions that Syncrude and the government need to answer for before we can say that justice has been served," said Mike Hudema, tar sands campaigner for Greenpeace.
The oil industry has mounted a PR counter-offensive, saying it is improving its practices, including developing new technology to stop the spread of tailings ponds and deal with the waste.
The Alberta government tightened regulations following the incident, requiring companies to prepare plans for the ponds and file reports on the annually.
Syncrude's partners are Canadian Oil Sands Trust, Imperial Oil Ltd, Suncor Energy Inc, Nexen Inc, ConocoPhillips Murphy Oil Ltd and Nippon Oil Corp unit Mocal Energy.
ConocoPhillips has announced the sale of its stake to Chinese state-owned Sinopec
(Reporting by Jeffrey Jones, editing by Leslie Gevirtz)