Cleaning up their act
A proposal to stem the largest single point source of heavy metal pollution in North America raises more questions
By Amy Fendley
The story that begins as the Britannia Mine is a long one. The story that begins as the Britannia Mine reclamation and remediation project, is even longer. To tell the latter of the two, a brief history lesson is required.
The Britannia Mine is located at the town of Britannia Beach, approximately 50 km north of Vancouver on the shore of Howe Sound. Operated from 1902 to 1963 by the Britannia Mining and Smelting Company Ltd., at one time it was the biggest copper producing mine in the British Empire.
Today, it is the largest single point source polluter of heavy metals in North America.
In 1974, the mine was permanently shut down by the Anaconda Mining Company. And in 1978, Crown grants and freehold rights to the Britannia Mine lands were obtained by Copper Beach Estates Ltd. (CBEL). Although CBEL had no part in the earlier mining activities and did not share in the profits from those operations, as the present owner it now has responsibility for site remediation. Otherwise known as a massive clean-up job.
During the more than 70 years of mining activity, approximately 80 km of underground workings and five open pits were excavated to mine the ore, which was then processed in Britannia Beach facilities.
Unknown at the time, rocks in the Britannia area, once exposed to air and water, are susceptible to natural oxidation of sulphide minerals — a process which releases acid into ground water and dissolves metals contained in the surrounding rock and soil.
In short, the resulting Acid Rock Drainage (ARD) from the Britannia Mine drains from underground shafts directly into Howe Sound.
The ARD, typically very acidic, contains high levels of sulphate and metals and acts as a toxic intravenous cocktail, euthanizing the nearshore aquatic life ecosystems of Britannia Creek and Howe Sound.
Acid rock drainage is the largest single environmental problem facing the mining industry today. At Britannia, the widespread exposed rock makes it impractical to eliminate or reduce ARD generation to an acceptable level. The preferred solution is to build and operate a water treatment plant which will collect and treat the ARD to an acceptable quality before discharge.
And so, on March 15, 1999 CBEL submitted applications to the provincial government for permits under the Mines Act and the Waste Management Act to clean up the water and reclaim lands by building and operating an ARD treatment plant. Operating costs of the treatment plant are to be financed by development of a commercial landfill for contaminated, metal-bearing soils. Through the course of the landfill operations the open pits and much of the disturbed mine lands will be filled, recontoured and restored with vegetation.
If the proposal is approved, Copper Beach Estates will transfer the parcel of land comprising the residential area north of Britannia Creek to a federal and provincial government-administered housing corporation. Residents would no longer lease their properties from CBEL.
The Fraser Basin Council is a non-government agency operating within "nature’s boundaries," committed to the sustainability of the Fraser Basin, which includes Howe Sound. The council is facilitating a public consultation process to review the CBEL proposal and consider the environmental, social and economic aspects of this long-standing problem and the proposed solution.
"You can't do anything until you solve the pollution problem," says Brent Leigh, a former Fraser Basin Council member who is now an economic development officer with the District of Squamish. "The public consultation process is almost as complex as the project. We're all still learning as we go and would like to hope that all the concerns can be addressed. It's always been a large problem, Britannia is a large problem, we're trying to turn the negative into a positive and that's not done without compromises. The area has got a lot of history. But no one wants to touch a pollution problem for fear that it will rub off on them."
An area known as the Jane Flats is where the actual surface mining occurred. Riddled with slopes, tunnels and pores, a metallic tonic of copper, zinc, cadmium, iron, lead, arsenic, antimony, aluminium and manganese leaches into the ground water. In spring, as much as 450 kg of copper per day can enter Howe Sound.
The mine effluent enters the Sound from two sources. Firstly from Britannia Creek, which receives mine waste from a tunnel about 670 m (2,200 ft) below the top of Mount Sheer at a rate of 24 litres a second. And secondly, from a pipe which receives effluent from a tunnel about 1,250 m (4,100 ft) from the mountain top and releases the waste — at 130 litres a second — directly into Howe Sound at a depth of 40 m off the mouth of Britannia Creek.
Britannia Creek, being freshwater, floats on top of the salt water in the Sound. As the copper becomes more toxic in less salty water, the beach ecosystem near the creek mouth is bathed in the effluent, which moves to the north and south depending on wind and tides.
In 1997, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada began a comprehensive research project to investigate the impact of mine effluent on the nearshore food chain, which supports salmon growth and survival. By combining laboratory and field studies, the research provided site-specific information to develop solutions to the environmental problems caused by the mine. The project in its third and final year.
Studies completed in collaboration with the DFO, Environment Canada, B.C. Ministry of Environment Lands and Parks, the Geological Survey of Canada and the UBC botany and oceanography departments, find that the shorelines of Howe Sound are habitat for chum salmon fry migrating to sea from the Squamish River. Approximately 4.5 million chum fry move past the mouth of Britannia Creek each year, and the approximately 1.5 million Chinook salmon smolts from a DFO hatchery on the Squamish River depend on nearshore habitats, as do rockfish, sole, crabs, mussels and prawns.
The result of the findings: mine waste flowing through Britannia Creek is one of the most serious marine pollution problems affecting fish habitat in B.C. The crystal clear waters of lower Britannia Creek are currently devoid of aquatic life.
Over the last several years, many studies have been funded by both industry and government to find metal recovery technologies that could generate enough revenue to offset treatment costs. None has ever proven feasible for application at Britannia.
However, the current proposal, facilitated by the Fraser Basin Council, is making waves. And most parties feel it could be the answer. But it’s not without its own questions.
What material will the commercial landfill receive? Will it be safe? Will trucks delivering materials cause traffic or safety problems on Highway 99? Will the proposed operation be unsightly? What would happen in the event of an earthquake or an avalanche? Is Copper Beach Estates in receivership?
At a Britannia Beach public information meeting in early April, Ron Fulber, a former Britannia Beach town electrician and now the director of the Britannia Beach Community Association, expressed some of his concerns.
"Anything is better than nothing and nothing has been done for 25 years," said Fulber. "It's such an intricate, complicated problem because the majority of the problem sits on private land, and crosses over Crown land. It won't go away. Aside from civil disobedience it's hard to get an ear, especially from politicians and bureaucrats. It took a hundred years to create this problem and it may take longer to clean it up. It is a poisoned site, the south side of the creek. I don't think a war could have done much more damage."
The treatment facility is tentatively planned to be located adjacent to the B.C. Museum of Mining property, at the lower mine portal (known as the 4100 level) from which water currently discharges into a culvert and then into Howe Sound. The plant would operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
The revenue-producing landfill would be located in the abandoned open pits and Jane Basin glory hole, several kilometres up the mountain at the site of previous mining operations. A transfer station constructed two kilometres south of Britannia and east of Highway 99 would receive, test and temporarily store contaminated soil prior to placement at the landfill. Both the landfill and transfer station would operate during usual daytime working hours and on an eight month schedule. The Fraser Basin Council has done the math, and that's an average of 26 trucks per day, five days per week. A four month closure would be necessary as snow conditions would make operation impractical.
All those trucks on the highway, carrying contaminated soil, concern residents of Furry Creek, as well as people who see the highway as already near capacity.
(Currently contaminated material is shipped to other provinces or states.)
And the cost of the whole proposal is not cheap. The price tag for building the water treatment plant and creating a mountaintop landfill is estimated at $10 million. Copper Beach Estates would fund the project.
While revenues from landfill tipping fees will pay for the annual operating cost of the treatment plant ($800,000) as well as providing sufficient reserves to fund operation and maintenance of the treatment plant, the approximately 400 residents of Britannia Beach, namely those signing their rent cheques payable to Copper Beach Estates Ltd., have some substantial concerns.
Fulber says its a heavy social issue that goes beyond the community and it looks poisonous.
"Fish only live three to five years, I intend to live a lot longer," says Fulber. "In the last 20 years, in excess of $25 million has left the estates. Now the government has to step in and it’s embarrassing.
"We're all looking for a solid solution here, but there is none. In the original deal signed by Copper Beach it read: Thou shalt be responsible for any past, present and future environmental concerns. And ever since ’78 they've been in non-compliance. Money has been continually pocketed. It's been a battle, now at least we have a lot of people looking at it," he says.
The proponent of Copper Beach Estates, Tim Drummond, was unavailable for comment, leaving unaddressed some residents’ concerns about the company’s financial standing.
"Even the most learned elders make mistakes," adds Fulber. "As with any human-made thing, there's the human risk of failure. You can dress up a baboon, but it's still a baboon."
It has been suggested that if the proposal is approved, the project itself could become a tourist attraction as an example of what Canadian mines are doing to clean up their act.