On Monday afternoon, lawyers made opening statements in what's expected to be a lengthy trial looking into the role Canada's largest single-source oil producer played in the deaths of 1,600 ducks.

Syncrude entered a not guilty plea to both provincial and federal charges after the animals were found dead inside the toxic pond near Fort McMurray in May 2008, with officials saying the company did everything in its power to prevent the tragedy.

The oil company, which has already issued a public apology, is pushing for at least one of the two charges to be dropped, claiming they are too similar in nature.

Representatives also claim the deaths were a mistake, saying a late-spring storm prevented cannons from scaring the birds away.

"Learn from mistakes. Crimes punish crimes. But don't punish mistakes," said Robert White, a lawyer for Syncrude.

Prosecutors, on the other hand, argue the company was negligent and failed to protect the animals.

"We clearly have to take a different position. We wouldn't be here if we agreed they did everything they could do," said lawyer Kent Brown.

Legal observers say this is an extremely technical legal case and represents unchartered waters for the justice system.

"It's the first time the Migratory Birds Convention Act has been used against an industrial facility," said Adam Driedzic, who works as an expert in environmental law.

Documents numbering in thousands of pages are being submitted for evidence.

"[The case is] scheduled for nine weeks and we expect it may well take that long," said Brown.

"There's going to be a number of witnesses including experts."

Local environmentalists say the court case shines a spotlight on questionable Syncrude practices that affect the health of people living near development sites.

"The tarsands' toxic tailings ponds are on trial today. I think this incident specifically showed the world just how toxic the tailings ponds are," said Lindsay Telfer with the Sierra Club.

"We know that those waters are leaking into the Athabasca and we know downstream communities have significant health problems.

"I think… the interest that we're seeing in this case goes far beyond the 1,600 ducks, though Syncrude needs to step up and take responsibility for those deaths."

If the oil giant is found guilty, it could face millions of dollars in fines.

With Files from CTV's Scott Roberts