Syncrude’s Dead Ducks Hardly a “Terrible Tragedy”May 7th, 2010
My Open Range column from the May 2010 issue of Alberta Venture magazine. Note: I didn’t write the sub-hed just below. My point in the text is that some accidents are unavoidable (although whether this one was isn’t germane to my argument).
An avoidable accident for sure, but nothing more
The terrified duckling raced about under the parked vehicles, quacking frantically for its absent mother. My white-water kayaking cronies all having brought along their dogs, who were interested in the duckling for all the wrong reasons, I was appointed to effect rescue. We managed to corral and scoop up the little one, who immediately began treating me as its new mom. On the drive to the wildlife recovery centre, it nestled on my lap in the passenger seat, climbing up my chest, burrowing into my shirt and nibbling my chin. A happy life seemed to lie ahead. Soon, however, the duckling began to weaken. Before we could get it to the experts, it passed away in my cupped hands, still gazing up at me. That was 15 years ago and it still seems like yesterday.
It might seem slightly jarring, then, that I think the public and legal reaction to the accidental death of 1,606 ducks in a toxic tailings pond at the Syncrude Canada Ltd. oil sands mine two years ago is misplaced, over-the-top and out of all proportion – a sad illumination of the post-modern mind’s neurotic bondage to mindless sentimentality. It seems universally accepted that Syncrude, which went on trial in early March under one provincial and one federal quasi-criminal regulatory charge, must be blameworthy. That rests on the utopian (i.e. ludicrous) premise, which today largely governs the risk management and safety sectors, that there are no true accidents and that all bad things are preventable.
The irrational public mood depends on shutting out easily available facts that would provide the crucial context from which a sense of proportion might flow. The dead duck toll certainly seems large. So take a wild guess at the total number of ducks in North America. A hundred thousand? Half a million? Try 42 million breeding (i.e., adult) ducks as of 2009, according to the most recent annual U.S./Canadian survey. And the number is surging, up by 14% over the previous year, and 25% higher than the past half-century’s average. Now that’s a population bomb!
Ducks breed prodigiously because they die almost equally fast. Hunters legally shoot 14 million ducks each open season in the U.S. alone, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That’s equivalent to 10,000 Syncrudes. As for natural predation, one scientific study found that foxes in just a three-county area of a single U.S. state killed 34,000 to 56,000 dabbling ducks annually – i.e., millions continent-wide. I’ve watched red-tailed hawks descend into a marsh and hack to death an entire duckling brood. Real ducks, sadly, just don’t have Daffy Duck’s supernatural survivability. That’s why they lay 12 eggs at a time.
By that standard – i.e., ecological facts – the Syncrude duck die-off was unfortunate, but no more. If you imagine a spectrum of ecological events, where you’d likely place the loss of a single whooping crane at one end under “bio-calamity,” and a trillion mosquitoes at the other under “who cares?” then those 1,600 ducks belong at best halfway along. Biologically/ecologically, they’re not equivalent even to one rare trumpeter swan. They’re of no consequence. The company should work to prevent a recurrence, but that’s it.
Even leaving aside the predictable wailing from environmentalists, the emotionalism of the reaction ruled out any rational assessment. Canada’s prime minister – that allegedly heartless Tory – declared it a “terrible tragedy” on national TV. If that’s really true, what should we then call the death of 22,000 humans in Burma, which happened at the same time? Nobody I noticed tried to supply any context, least of all Syncrude, which opted instead for escalating self-abasement. Its president, Tom Katinas, called the event “particularly sad and embarrassing.”
Should Syncrude have done better? Absolutely. The organization has long struck me as slow-moving and bureaucratic, weighed down by an obsession with process and a heavy union mentality. Its demonstrable record of massive cost overruns doesn’t create confidence. That its people wouldn’t or couldn’t deal with an unforeseen event – the late-season snowfall that allegedly prevented them from setting up their sound cannon at the tailings pond – and instead apparently played everything according to the flawed letter of their Byzantine rulebook isn’t that surprising. Maybe today’s overweening health and safety protocols prevented workers from venturing out in the snow; or maybe they filled out all the forms and just didn’t exercise judgment. (Syncrude subsequently tightened its bird-deterring measures around its tailing ponds.)
Still, I disagree with those who say this is about far more than a few hundred dead ducks, what one commentator termed “canaries in the tar pits,” something portending vastly greater environmental problems. That’s a canard, if you’ll pardon the pathetic pun. There’s not a shred of evidence that next time around we’ll see entire herds of endangered grizzlies leaping to their oily death. Nor would it be legally fitting to punish Syncrude for the “larger issue” of the oil sands industry’s overall lack of esthetic agreeability with post-modern sensibilities. Using this trial to “send a message” would no long be the rule of law, but banana-republic tactics.
Going by all public information I’ve seen, this wasn’t the least bad thing that ever happened in the oil sands, but the worst. Rather than horrible bird kills – or any other kind – being common, this was a deviation. Such a record, amassed over 40 years of growing oil sands industry operations, is nothing to be ashamed of. Considering that regulation, oversight, standards and practices are intensifying alongside the oil sands industry’s growth, there’s reason to think things are getting better, not worse. If this was the worst that ever happens, it ain’t bad at all.