December 01, 2000 Features & Images » Feature Story

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. 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.

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