Britannia Waives The Rules - Canadian Mine Misses Fourth Cleanup Deadline

By Neville Judd

VANCOUVER, British Columbia, Canada, September 8, 2000 (ENS) - Fifty kilometers (30 miles) north of Vancouver, Britannia Beach is the perfect place to stop enroute to the ski resort of Whistler. The old mine site at the foot of Mount Sheer on the shore of Howe Sound is a popular spot for daytrippers. TV shows like the X-Files find it an ideal place to film.

It is also the worst point source of metals pollution in North America, according to Environment Canada.

Last week, for the fourth time since it purchased the site, Vancouver-based Copper Beach Estates Ltd. failed to meet a provincial government deadline to halt the flow of deadly toxins from the heavily contaminated area.

mine

Acid mine drainage from the Britannia Mine has been polluting the waters of Howe Sound for decades. (Photos courtesy B.C. Ministry of Energy and Mines)
Now conservation groups and environmental lawyers are demanding that the provincial government step in.

The mine, which operated for 70 years before it shut down in 1974, was once the largest copper producer in the British Empire. The 52 million tonnes of ore excavated in that time left a 160 kilometer network of tunnels and five open pits, exposing huge amounts of acid generating rock.

Acid is generated when the pyrite or iron sulphide minerals, known as "fools gold," are exposed to water and air. When sulphides come in contact with water and oxygen, sulphuric acid is created. The runoff is known as acid mine drainage (AMD).

AMD dissolves many metals, such as copper, zinc and cadmium, that are found in the rocks and soil on the Britannia site. Situated in an area that receives more than two meters of rain a year, the metal-laden waters flow into creeks and streams, and eventually into the ocean.

An underwater pipe which lies on the bottom of Howe Sound at a depth of 40 meters currently discharges a continuous toxic flow of four million to 40 million liters per day. Farther up the mountain, another old mine portal continues to discharge up to 10 million liters per day into Jane Creek which flows into Britannia Creek and finally the ocean.

miners

The last shift to work at the Britannia Mine - 1974.
High concentrations of these metals, particularly copper, are toxic to many aquatic organisms. According to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, mine waste from Britannia creek is one of the most serious marine pollution problems affecting fish habitat in B.C.

Elevated copper and zinc levels in bivalves have been noted 18 kilometers from Britannia Beach. Surveys of bottom-dwelling organisms 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.

Copper levels in Britannia Bay surface waters are at several times the toxic level for most marine organisms and are six times the "never to exceed level" set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"The provincial and federal governments need to put a solution in place to stop tonnes of copper and zinc from flowing into Howe Sound again this winter and spring," said Karen Wristen, executive director of the Sierra Legal Defence Fund.

"They need to either sue the companies who are responsible for this mess, or commit to a cleanup plan using public funds until responsible parties are brought to justice."

Since purchasing the property in 1979, real estate company Copper Beach Estates (CBE) has been issued four pollution remediation orders under B.C.ís Waste Management Act. The latest was issued in the fall of 1999 and expired August 31.

map

Map showing Britannia Mine's location in relation to Vancouver.
All sides, including CBE, agree that the only option for dealing with the AMD is to treat the runoff before it comes in contact with aquatic life. 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 AMD. Fees for dumping waste would cover the costs of running the treatment plant, according to CBE.

The final part of the plan would see diversions built to pipe contaminated waters from one of two main exits known as Jane Portal away from Britannia Creek to a second portal which enters Howe Sound at a depth of 40 meters.

But CBE has not found the $4 million it is estimated to cost to build the treatment plant and has not conducted the required studies needed to begin clean-up of the site, thereby defaulting on its remediation order. This despite the fact that the company sold an uncontaminated portion of the property in 1990 for $14.8 million for the Furry Creek real estate and golf course development on Howe Sound.

Residents and environmentalists had balked at the idea of solving one polluting problem by introducing more pollution.

The watchdog Environmental Mining Council of B.C. (EMCBC) said the companyís contaminated soils landfill idea was never financially viable or environmentally sound.

miners

More than 1,000 miners were on Britannia Mine's payroll during its peak production year of 1929, two years after this photo was taken.
"The financing institutions or partners that CBEL has approached apparently reached a similar conclusion," said EMCBC executive director Alan Young. "Itís time the provincial government recognized that this so-called plan is going nowhere and did something to end the continued pollution at this site."

B.C.'s Ministry of Environment realized in April that CBE was "in serious default of the requirements" of the remediation order. So it revived what is known as the "responsible party process," meaning it notified other companies who earlier operated or owned the mine, that they are potentially responsible for Britannia's cleanup.

The companies include ARCO, CanZinco and ArrowHead/Ivaco. None of the companies has accepted responsibility for the pollution or offered to assist in cleaning up the site.

Assistant regional waste manager for the Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks, Ray Robb told ENS that CBE's landfill permit had been suspended because of last week's missed deadline and the company is now under legal investigation. The ministry will also continue its pursuit of the companies above.

"We were looking at going after other parties a couple of years ago but put that on hold when Copper Beach came to us with its remediation plan," said Robb.

town

Britannia Beach as it looked in 1916.
"When it became obvious their plan wasn't going to work we went after these companies again."

Robb said CBE could be charged if suspected of discharging waste into the environment causing pollution, or for violating its remediation order. Those charges carry penalties of between $300,000 and a $1 million but could take up to two years to come to court.

"One consideration is that if you get a successful conviction, does Copper Beach have any money to pay the fine?" said Robb.

"The ministry has no reason to vary from the path it's on right now, which is to name those people who profited from mining on an order and tell them to clean it up.

"Some of those folks have substantially deep pockets and they might might appeal or challenge, but we can prosecute under the Waste Management Act and get them to accept their responsibilities. It's not the taxpayers responsibility."

Copper Beach Estates director Tim Drummond did not return ENS phone calls.