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Syncrude faces prosecution for duck deaths in tar sands

An Alberta resident, backed by environmental group Ecojustice, is prosecuting tar sands developer Syncrude Canada for the death of hundreds of migrating birds last spring.

News reports of the incident, in which a flock of nearly 500 ducks died in the sludge of a tailings pond, were widely publicized in national and international media. Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach told reporters at the time that, "As the government of Alberta, we mean business," and said the province would investigate and determine if charges would be laid under Canada's Migratory Birds Convention Act.

"We asked in late November what was the status of their investigation and they didn't give us any information," said Barry Robinson, the lawyer representing this case, which was launched yesterday.

His client, Jeh Custer, is the citizen behind this private prosecution. It's not a lawsuit, explained Robsinson, but instead Custer is stepping into the role that would normally be taken by the attorney general.

Christianne Wilhelmson of the Georgia Strait Alliance, explained private prosecution this way:

"Essentially the government is supposed to enforce its own laws, and when they don't a private citizen can go to court and prosecute."

But she said these cases don't often see the light of day. The Georgia Strait Alliance, along with Ecojustice and several other environmental groups, had launched a private prosecution against the the B.C. government and Metro Vancouver, based on high PCB levels being released from the Iona sewage treatment plant.

In November, the federal government halted that case with no explanation why.

"In B.C. it's been decades since a private prosecution actually went through to the end," Wilhelmson told The Tyee at the time.

Robinson said he can't think of any private prosecution case in Alberta that has been brought all the way through the courts.

"The provincial government said it intended to make a decision by the end of August," said Robinson.

"It's been more than eight months. From our point of view, we thought that this should be prosecuted in a timely manner."

Ogho Ikhalo, a spokesperson for the Alberta environment ministry, said the province's legal counsel is reviewing the details of the ongoing investigation.

She wouldn't specify a timeline, but said the province has two years to decide whether to prosecute or not. Ikahol also said the private prosecution would have no bearing on the provincial investigation.

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