The images last year of some 500 dead and dying ducks drowning in a toxic tailings pond was not one that Canada wanted the world to see. They wanted to keep the downside of Canada’s dirty tar sands business secret.

But the images of the dying birds flashed around the world much to the annoyance of Canada’s politicians. The Prime Minister Stephen Harper remarked at the time that Canada’s international reputation had been harmed. The press talked about humiliation.

Now Syncrude Canada could face fines of up to $800,000 if convicted under provincial and federal environmental legislation in connection with the deaths of the waterfowl.

The charges are the first of their kind against an oil sands company. They come as Alberta and Canada wages a PR campaign to promote the resource as “safe” and “secure.”  “I think we have an obligation not only to the environment, but to the public and to the credibility of our system if we don’t lay charges,” Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner told reporters yesterday.

It was last April that the birds were found dead or dying in a toxic soup located along a migratory route for hundreds of thousands of waterfowl.

Under the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, Syncrude could be fined up to $500,000 for failing to ensure that “a person who keeps, stores or transports a hazardous substance or pesticide shall do so in a manner that ensures that the hazardous substance does not directly or indirectly come into contact with or contaminate any animals, plants, food or drink.”

Syncrude also has been charged federally under the Migratory Birds Convention Act for “allegedly depositing or permitting the deposit of a substance harmful to migratory birds in waters or an area frequented by birds.” The maximum penalty is $300,000.

Although $800,000 seems a lot of money, the Globe and Mail newspaper has worked out that an $800,000 fine represents less than an hour of production revenue from the mine concerned.

Critics also contend that the prosecutions could be politically motivated – to try and show that Canada is a “responsible” oil producer before President Obama visits later this month.

Alberta’s provincial premier, Ed Stelmach, last week invited Obama to visit the sands: “We know he is interested in energy issues and would love for him to come to Alberta and see the oil sands for himself.”

If Obama does, I hope he has read Lords of the Rings, as he will recognise Mordor when he sees it.