I clicked on the Uniform Resource Indicator at the bottom of an e-message I recently received and there, thanks to the miracle that is cyberspace, was Mark Angelo, the noted conservationist who works for the British Columbia Institute of Technology’s River Institute. Mark was upbeat, almost ecstatic, and with good reason. Pink salmon have returned to Britannia Creek.
Why is the return of a hundred humpies a cause for celebration and jubilation? Simply because Britannia Creek, its estuary, and a significant chunk of Howe Sound that is next to it, have been dead, as in, devoid of all life, for almost a hundred years.
Mining is earth abuse at its worst. The Britannia copper mine, an operation that once produced more copper ore than any other mine on earth, provides more proof that the long term economic benefits of mines are non-existent and their environmental impacts and clean up costs are on going and incredibly long lived.
The Britannia Smelting and Mining Company and the Anaconda Mining Company both realized handsome profits plundering the copper of the Britannia Mountains. Sadly the exertion of the miners produced more than copper ore, it also produced acid rock. When the mine closed in 1974 after over 80 years of operation, the flow of copper ceased, but the flow of poison into Howe Sound continued.
Rainwater and runoff still flows through the tunnels at Britannia Mine where it combines with oxygen and sulphides in the waste rock to turn into a deadly brew of sulphuric acid, copper, cadmium, iron and zinc, collectively known as Acid Rock Drainage or ARD. In 2001 this ARD and 450 kilos of copper a day were entering Howe Sound via Jane and Britannia Creeks with the result that a two kilometre strip of coastal water along Britannia Beach was so seriously polluted that, at one point, it wiped out 4.5 million chum salmon juveniles that had strayed from the Squamish estuary.
At one point Fisheries and Oceans Canada tested the toxicity of the area by placing caged chinook salmon in the waters of Britannia Beach. The fish died in less than 48 hours. The water in front of the old mine gained the dubious distinction as one of the most contaminated sites in North America.
After all the damage caused by the mine, you might think that the land would revert to the Crown, who would then sue the successors of the former mine owners for the clean up costs. Unfortunately that’s not how things work in the right wing, business friendly BC. In 2001, the Province reached a $30 million settlement with the successors to the former mine owners. In the summer 2003, subsequent to an agreement with the Provincial Government, the 40 km square mine site, including the town was purchased by The Macdonald Development Corporation. The approximately 1.6 square kilometres remained with Macdonald and the remaining 39 square kilometres, including the primary contaminated areas, remained with the Province.
The Province proceeded to construct a $20 million dollar water treatment centre to process the water pollution from the former mine, consisting of the acid mine drainage and the contaminated groundwater which formerly discharged to Howe Sound. The water treatment plant started operation on schedule in 2005. The acid mine drainage will continue for hundreds of years so the water treatment plant will remain in operation for the same span. The approximate cost for the first 20 years of the reclamation program, including all initial capital and operation costs is approximately $100 million, which will be primarily paid for by the Province. It’s a familiar story. Miners profit by wrecking our land and the citizens are left with the bill for the cleanup.
The water treatment plant and some innovative engineering by Engineers from the Centre for Environmental Research in Minerals, Metals, and Materials at The University of British Columbia, have eliminated almost all the pollution.
Herring began returning to the waters of Britannia followed, naturally by a host of marine life, and then, to everyone’s surprise and delight, the pink salmon began to repopulate the most polluted little stream on the continent.
During our celebration of Nature’s resiliency, we should not forget the history of Britannia and the lessons that can be learned from it. Foremost among them, the lesson that the long term costs – including the destruction of invaluable habitat – must be calculated and be paramount prior to approval of all mining operations on our lands.