Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Syncrude offers public apology

The company at the centre of an environmental debacle that killed hundreds of ducks at an oilsands tailings pond north of Fort McMurray has taken out full-page newspaper advertisements apologizing for the incident.

In the ads, Syncrude Canada Ltd. offers "a heartfelt and sincere apology for the incident on April 28th that caused hundreds of migratory birds to die after they landed on a tailings pond at our oil sands peration."

Syncrude's message, signed by the company's president and CEO, Tom Katinas, appeared in several newspapers Saturday, including the Edmonton Journal, Calgary Herald, National Post and Globe and Mail.

The open-letter style ad comes less than a week after reports of birds seen on a toxic waste water pond at the company's Aurora mine site.

Syncrude has said it had not set up noisemakers to scare away migrating fowl at the pond because of late winter storms.

The resulting deaths of an estimated 500 waterfowl have left the Alberta government and the oilsands industry struggling to convince the world they are not just paying lip service to cleaning up their operations.

Images of oil-fouled birds flashed on televisions and computer screens around the world all week, just as Deputy Premier Ron Stevens returned from Washington where he touted the oilsands as a plentiful and sustainable supply of energy.

Syncrude's newspaper ads appeared the day after another another public relations event. On Friday, Katinas toured the pond with media. It was the first time journalists were allowed on the site.

In the ad, the company says it is investigating what led to the incident and is co-operating with government departments that are also reviewing what happened.

"We are committed to making the necessary changes to our long-

established practices to help ensure a sad event like this never happens again," it says.

The letter promises the company will learn from what happened. "We will meet your expectations for responsible development."

Public relations experts say an apology such as the one issued by Syncrude has become expected practice for companies who make high-profile mistakes.

"In the public relations profession, you're expected to advise your organization that if you've done something, to fess up and try to make it right," said Sharon Hawrelak, president-elect of the Canadian Public Relations Society, Edmonton chapter.

"In the old days it was about spin doctoring."

Still, Hawrelak said, apologies mean nothing without followup.

"The proof is in what you actually do," she said.

"This is the first step. If the next steps are not in tune with that, then it could be just as much spin-doctoring as anything else. It's really about actions."

Environmental groups expressed differing reactions to the public apology.

"I'd like to think that they're sincere, but I think the heart of the matter is a lot bigger than an apology," said Lindsay Telfer, director of the Sierra Club's prairie chapter.

"I think there are significant concerns with how oilsands companies are managing their waste products, and I think that question goes deeper than what an apology can answer."

The executive director of the Pembina Institute, Marlo Raynolds, said an apology falls short.

"This doesn't undo the failure of proper process and the failure of these companies and the failure of the government to protect the environment when it comes to the development of the oilsands," he said.

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