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Britannia waives the rules

Twenty-six years after the copper mine closed, those responsible for stopping the toxic runoff into Howe Sound are about to be named The waters of Britannia Bay look clean but that's because the pollution is hard to spot.

Twenty-six years after the copper mine closed, those responsible for stopping the toxic runoff into Howe Sound are about to be named

The waters of Britannia Bay look clean but that's because the pollution is hard to spot. You can't smell it and it probably wouldn't hurt if you fell in it.

Yet according to Environment Canada, this part of Howe Sound is victim to the worst point source of metals pollution in North America – Britannia Mine.

Every day, up to 50 million litres of toxic runoff flows from the abandoned mine site on Mount Sheer into Howe Sound. It comes from rock laid bare by 70 years of copper mining. Two metres of rain a year, five open pits and a network of tunnels estimated to be 210 kilometres long provide the perfect conditions for acid mine drainage.

When iron sulphide minerals are exposed to water and air, sulphuric acid is generated. The acid dissolves the heavy metals in the rock, such as copper, zinc and cadmium, and washes them through the pits and tunnels of Mount Sheer into creeks, streams and eventually Howe Sound.

The results of a three year study by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans into the effects of acid mine drainage on Howe Sound's aquatic life are due to be released soon. However, scientists already know that mine waste from Britannia Creek is one of the most serious marine pollution problems affecting fish habitat in B.C.

Deciding who is to blame for the problem is an equally messy business, but essential if the B.C. government's waste management branch is to identify the parties responsible for cleaning it up.

At the end of August, for the fourth time since it purchased the site, Vancouver-based real estate developer Copper Beach Estates Ltd. failed to meet a pollution remediation order issued under B.C.'s Waste Management Act.

While the waste management branch considers prosecuting Copper Beach Estates, it has revived what's known under the Waste Management Act as the "responsible party process." Under the process, it has notified other companies and authorities who were once connected with the mine, that they are now potentially responsible for Britannia's cleanup.

All parties are expected to file submissions commenting on remediation requirements, explaining why they're not to blame and pointing out who is. And there's been no shortage of pointing, which is why the growing list of potentially responsible parties currently stands at eight and includes both the provincial and federal governments.

All sides agree that the only option for dealing with acid mine drainage is to build a treatment plant to neutralize the acid and capture the metals before the runoff reaches aquatic life. But no one who allegedly profited from the 53.6 million tonnes of ore (including 15.3 tonnes of gold and 180 tonnes of silver) mined at Britannia appears in any hurry to foot the bill.

Early solutions

Not long after the Britannia mine opened in 1904, miners began to notice something odd. The soles of their leather boots were falling apart. On closer inspection, they discovered that the nails supposed to hold the soles in place were corroded. Acid mine drainage was wrecking their boots.

The problem was nothing compared to Britannia miners' other occupational hazards, like deafness and the lung disease silicosis. But almost a century later, and after 60,000 men passed through what was once the British Empire's biggest copper mine, acid mine drainage persists unchecked.

It's easy to see how, on a tour of the mine run by the B.C. Museum of Mining. The blueish green hue of the rocks shows copper oxidizing, while water drips constantly from tunnel ceilings, running down walls and forming large puddles.

The problem comes mainly from two sources on Mount Sheer. Rain and snowmelt is channelled first into a conduit known as the Jane Portal, 2,200 feet below the mountain top, which empties into Britannia Creek. (Early surveyors measured Britannia downwards from 4,300 feet above sea level, the highest point of the mine).

What escapes Jane Portal ends up in another pipe about 4,100 feet below Mount Sheer's summit. This empties directly into Howe Sound at a depth of about 130 feet off the mouth of Britannia Creek.

Depending on the time of year, both portals can flush up to 50 million litres of acid mine drainage between them into Howe Sound every day. Not only is the effluent highly acidic, it carries a host of heavy metals. Up to half a tonne of copper alone daily enters Howe Sound during peaks flows. This has left lower Britannia Creek devoid of aquatic life and affects about two kilometres of sensitive intertidal salmon habitat in Howe Sound. Elevated copper and zinc levels in bivalves, such as clams and oysters, have been noted 18 kilometres from Britannia Beach. Surveys in the Britannia Beach area have shown high levels of copper and zinc in crabs, oysters, mussels and shrimp, and reduced numbers of these species.

"Almost every component of fish habitat is adversely affected by acid mine drainage from Britannia Mine," said Wayne Knapp, senior biological technologist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

"That affects predominantly chum salmon, shellfish and intertidal vegetation." The mine effluent is also toxic to microscopic plants such as phytoplankton, essential food for filter feeding animals such as mussels.

Yet given its billing as the continent's worst point source of metals pollution, you'd expect to see at least a few dead fish washed ashore at Britannia Bay.

"Many people say, 'why don't we see more fish kills?'" said Knapp. "If more fish were washed up, action might have been taken by now.

"It's very difficult to say how many fish have been lost because of acid mine drainage. But at least half of the nine million chum salmon that come from the Squamish River are at risk. They must either try to swim through the toxic plume or move around it into the middle of Howe Sound, where they're at greater risk of predation."

Knapp said that in DFO tests, chinook salmon smolts suspended in cages near Britannia Creek died within 48 hours.

Despite the continuing damage caused by acid mine drainage, Knapp believes much of the area's aquatic life could recover if a waste treatment plant is built.

"A waste treatment plant would raise the water's ph level and filter out the heavy metals, so the toxic effects would be reduced significantly and immediately," said Knapp. The removal of toxic stress would mean the beach ecosystem could recover, the risk to chum fry would be substantially reduced and the lower reaches of Britannia Creek could become habitat for chum salmon and cutthroat trout, he added.

The solution sounds simple, but there have been as many studies into treatment plants for Britannia as there are potentially responsible parties for building one.

In an unfortunate twist, Montana-based mining company Anaconda, the last owner of the operating mine, was investigating a lime-based neutralizing treatment plant when it closed Britannia in 1974 because of falling copper prices.

Until then though, Anaconda had been removing copper from the mine's waste water, much like its predecessors, the Howe Sound Company and earlier, the Britannia Mining and Smelting Co.

Not long after Britannia's early miners stopped wearing nailed boots, their bosses figured out a way to remove copper from the acid mine drainage in order to maximize their profits. Britannia Mining's Copper Precipitation Process was a cheap, ingenious system of controlling and channelling the flow of the mine's waste water into troughs filled with recycled tin cans.

As the water passed over the cans, copper replaced the cans' iron coating. Waste water was temporarily diverted while the copper was then flushed from the cans before being allowed to dry in a sludge pile. It was then removed for smelting.

"Today's treatment plant would need to be a little more sophisticated," admitted Britannia Beach Historical Society director Terry Johnson. "But it worked," he added. A copy of the mine's 1933 annual report proves his point. It shows that the precipitation process recovered 92 per cent of the copper found in acid mine drainage that year.

The society runs the B.C. Mining Museum, the most visible face of the Britannia mine since it sits below the old seven-storey copper mill, centrepiece of dozens of movies and TV shows. Johnson was site boss for Anaconda when it closed down. He has plenty of reasons for wanting acid mine drainage dealt with, not the least of which is the poor image it gives the museum.

"The site the museum is on is not contaminated but it's the first place people come to and photograph when the issue is being reported. We're tarnished with it." However, he can sympathize with some of the companies being sought for the cleanup.

"Who's responsible for the cleanup is a difficult question," he said. "But Anaconda spent several years and a lot of money satisfying the permits and regulations of the time, before it was even allowed to sell the site.

"It's a little like me buying the house that your grandfather built and discovering that the wiring's faulty. Am I going to come after you?"

Who’s responsible

The closest the Britannia mine has come to getting a treatment plant was the plan proposed by the site's owners, Copper Beach Estates (CBE).

Last year CBE received Waste Management and Mines Act permits from two B.C. ministries – Mines and Environment – for a plan to build a treatment plant to neutralize the acid and capture the metals.

The plan would turn the mine site into a landfill for non-hazardous industrial wastes to effectively plug Britannia's open pits and thereby reduce the inflow of rainwater and outflow of acid mine drainage. Fees for dumping waste would cover the annual $800,000 costs of running the treatment plant, according to CBE.

But CBE could not find the $4 million needed to build the treatment plant and did not conduct the required studies to begin cleanup of the site, thereby defaulting on its remediation order.

It is now one of the eight parties listed by deputy director of Waste Management Ron Driedger as potentially responsible for the cleanup.

The other seven parties are: Aluminium Company of America (Alcoa), the B.C. government, the Atlantic Richfield Company (Arco), Canzinco Ltd., Ivaco/Arrowhead Metals Ltd., the Canadian Government and three of Alcoa's subsidiaries located in Delaware, (currently listed as one potentially responsible party) Intalco Aluminum Corporation, Alumax Inc. and Howmet Holdings Corporation.

"Jockeying" might best describe how the list got to be so large, and it could still grow. When potentially responsible parties are named they can submit to the waste management branch names of other companies or authorities that they believe should be included.

Some inclusions appear more tenuous than others.

Through mergers, transfers of ownership and name changes, the mine's last operators, Anaconda, can be linked to Canzinco, Ivaco/Arrowhead and Arco, hence their inclusion. Copper Beach is included because it has owned the site since 1979.

Alcoa was named after Canzinco argued that the company is the legal successor to the Howe Sound Corporation (which operated the Britannia mine before Anaconda) through two statutory mergers and a name change. Canzinco also named the B.C. government as responsible because of its regulatory role in the mine and its response to a flood in 1991, which allegedly exacerbated pollution at the site.

Two months ago, Arco's lawyers filed a submission alleging that Intalco Aluminum Corporation, Alumax Inc. and Howmet Holdings Corporation are also responsible by virtue of being Alcoa's subsidiaries. In the same submission, Arco alleged that the Government of Canada is responsible because it is a previous "operator" of the mine, during World War II.

Not every allegation ended in a potentially responsible party being named. For instance, the waste management branch rejected Copper Beach Estates suggestion that the Britannia Beach Historical Society, which operates the B.C. Museum of Mining, be named. Nor did it accept Arco's suggestion that former and existing directors of Copper Beach Estates be named to the remediation order.

For good measure, Copper Beach Estates was suing Arco and Alcoa for US$150 million in the United States federal courts. "The suit is to cover all contingencies relating to the mine, museum lands, anywhere on the property that constitutes the mine," said Copper Beach Estates director Tim Drummond, speaking on his cell phone on the way to discovery hearings in Seattle earlier this fall.

Drummond believed he would get results more quickly in the U.S. However, the suit was dropped in November. "We didn't do the mining, legally we shouldn't have to come up with a red cent," said Drummond, who admitted that he regrets buying Copper Beach in 1990.

Decision day

After several months negotiating the legal vagaries of corporate successor liability and B.C.'s Waste Management Act, Driedger had been expected to issue a new or amended remediation order this week, naming the parties responsible for cleaning up Britannia Mine.

However, responding to a request from the B.C. government on behalf of all the potentially responsible parties, Driedger has agreed to delay the deadline for written submissions to Jan. 15, 2001.

The delay will allow a two-day settlement conference in which the potentially responsible parties will have a chance to resolve the problem themselves. The conference is due to finish today (Friday, Dec. 1).

Given this legal manoeuvring, (which possibly cost the equivalent of a treatment plant downpayment), might the responsible parties named next month simply ignore any remediation order, or immediately appeal?

Not necessarily, according to North Vancouver barrister and solicitor William Andrews, who's been following the case on behalf of the Sierra Legal Defence Fund and the Environmental Mining Council of B.C.

"One shouldn't jump to the conclusion that because they've been jockeying, they won't at some point, when the decision's been made, contribute to the cleanup of the site," said Andrews. "The process allows companies room to make the right decision without the sense of losing face."

Andrews added that potentially responsible parties would have been highly motivated to settle during this week's two-day conference to avoid being named on a cleanup order. The order could tie them to liability for cleaning up contaminated land on the site – not just acid mine drainage.

Andrews is not aware of a precedent for governments appealing being named to a remediation order, and even if companies appeal to the Environmental Appeal Board, it does not follow that the order is stayed.

"It's conceivable work could get underway in six months," said Andrews.

Alan Young of the Environmental Mining Council has reservations. "My concern is that the real problem – the copper and zinc going into Howe Sound – could get lost in lawyers' negotiations. The government needs to keep its eye on the ball and ensure that regardless of legal procedure, a cleanup plan is in place and funded in the short term."

"If there is a co-operative approach among all parties, that would be great. The government needs to be involved in the cleanup at some stage, but what its financial obligations are compared to those who profited from the mine, needs to be examined."

Like Young, Karen Wristen of Sierra Legal believes the responsible party process works on a sound principle and deserves to be followed. "If it's not followed, what's left is taxpayers having to pick up the price tag," said Wristen.

Ron Driedger denies there's a conflict of interest in he, a B.C. government employee, deciding if the B.C. government is a responsible party. He pointed out that he named the B.C. government as a responsible party in a pollution prevention order issued in a recent case involving coal tar contamination on lands located at 9250 Oak Street in Vancouver.

He's confident that if the settlement conference fails, responsible parties will comply with his remediation order. "Because of the urgency in this case, the Environmental Appeal Board will process any appeals very quickly, but in the meantime, responsible parties are obliged to comply with the order," said Driedger.

"We don't want to see any undue delays. This is a serious situation and we expect it to be dealt with now."

Twenty-six years after the first remediation order was issued, now has been a long time coming.