Canadian oil company pleads guilty in deaths of great blue herons

a-great-blue-heron-spreading-its-wings Photo by VDV/Shutterstock

Oil sands giant Syncrude Canada has pleaded guilty to violating the Migratory Birds Convention Act, 1994, over the deaths of 31 great blue herons at its Mildred Lake facility, 40 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, Alberta. The fine of $1.775 million is far and away the largest penalty ever imposed by a Canadian court for harm to migratory birds. The company was also sentenced to pay a further fine of $975,000 after pleading guilty to one charge under Alberta’s Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act.

The birds were found in an abandoned sump, and all but one were already dead from exposure to bitumen. The company was charged with “depositing a substance that is harmful to migratory birds or permitting the deposit of such a substance in waters or an area frequented by migratory birds or in a place from which the substance may enter such waters or such an area.”

Many (but not all) species of migratory birds in North America have been protected since a 1916 convention between the United States and the United Kingdom (acting on behalf of Canada). Great blue herons are covered under “other migratory non game birds.” The latest version of the Canadian law was passed in 1994. The fine paid by Syncrude under the 1994 act will go into the federal government’s Environmental Damages Fund, which was created in 1995 under the “polluter pay” principle to fund projects aimed at restoration, environmental quality improvement, research and development, and education and awareness.

Until the Syncrude case, the largest fine on record in the government of Canada’s Environmental Offenders Registry for a violation of the Migratory Birds Convention Act was in 2016, when Sinatra Inc. of Montreal was fined $15,000 for destroying bank swallow nests at a sand quarry near Saint-Lambert-de-Laurin, Quebec. That same year, 1762690 Ontario Inc. (Piroli Construction) was fined $7,500 for destroying bank swallow eggs, nests and nest shelter at a construction site in Leamington, Ontario.

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