Hard Rock Heartbreak: the Cost of BC Mining

The safest mine is the one that is not built

Zoe Blunt

Acid mine drainage

Acid mine drainage, Wikimedia

Ten years ago this summer, disaster struck the forests and waters around the Mt. Polley mine north of Williams Lake, BC. An overloaded tailings dam collapsed and flooded Polley Lake, Hazeltine Creek and Quesnel Lake with billions of litres of waste water and contaminated sludge.

No one was criminally charged as a result of the disaster. Imperial Metals, however, sued its own engineering consultants and settled for a cool $108 million. Two engineers were fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for a design flaw in the tailings dam, which was built on glacial gravel instead of solid rock.

The company and the BC government spent millions of dollars cleaning up the waste. Imperial Metals claims it has fully remediated the area, but observers question whether that is possible, given that 25 million cubic meters of mining waste was spread over a dozen square kilometres, including the bottom of Quesnel Lake, where it remains today. The impact of the cement-like tailings wiped out forests and salmon spawning beds.

The first rule of business says, “Privatize profits, socialize losses.”

Despite the devastating impact of the disaster, the gold and copper mine, owned by Imperial Metals, reopened in 2016. Since then, the mine has churned out millions of tons of ore and waste rock, its activities limited only by the commodity price of copper. As destructive as the dam collapse was, it could have been much worse. No one was killed, and no mass deaths of fish or animals were reported. It is very fortunate that the ore at Mt. Polley is low in sulfides and much less toxic than most copper ore.

Copper mining requires digging up vast quantities of ore-bearing rock, then crushing and smelting the ore in enormous furnaces. Depending on whether the ore is on the surface or deep underground, a copper mine can use open pits a kilometre across and tunnels a kilometre deep. Tremendous amounts of energy are required to move, crush, and smelt tons of rock.

Acid rock drainage

But the real environmental cost comes from the waste rock. When air and water combine with naturally-occurring sulfides in the waste rock, a chemical reaction creates a persistent, toxic slurry called acid rock drainage. Decades after the copper is gone and the mine closes down, the toxic outflow remains, unless the site is remediated.

The solution for acid rock drainage is capping outflows from waste rock and preventing more water from getting in. It’s not rocket science. But it costs a lot of money, and in the absence of enforceable environmental-protection laws, political pressure must be applied. Concerted lobbying from citizens and government is the difference between a mine that’s remediated and one that’s left to leach poison into the ecosystem indefinitely.

Decades after the copper is gone and the mine closes down, the toxic outflow remains.

For decades, the former Britannia Beach copper mine was the worst point source of heavy metal pollution in North America. The mine, 50 km north of Vancouver, opened in 1905, boomed in the 1920s, and finally closed in 1974. Over the years, surface water from snow and rain filtered into the mine’s abandoned tunnels and mixed with crushed rock. The resulting acidic runoff contained levels of copper and iron so high they were fatal to fish and invertebrates. The untreated toxins flowed straight into Howe Sound, creating an underwater dead zone where nothing could live.

A sweetheart deal for Britannia Mine’s corporate owners forced BC taxpayers to ante up $75 million to cap the outflow and build a waste-treatment plant. Copper Beach, the owners of the mine site, put up $30 million to maintain the plant “in perpetuity.” In exchange, they were absolved of all liability, forever.

The Britannia Beach story has a happy ending. When the acid outflows were sealed off, life began to return to Britannia Creek and Howe Sound. The area is now flourishing with mussels, crabs, fish, and seals.

Tsolum River

The Mount Washington Copper Mine, near the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island, produced copper ore for only three years before investors pulled out and closed the mine in 1967. They left behind tons of waste rock and toxic runoff that poured into creeks and rivers for decades, slowly killing off the once-thriving salmon populations in the Tsolum River. In 2000, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans declared the river incapable of supporting life. No fish, no frogs, not even insects.

Fortunately, the Tsolum River had champions in both Environment Canada and the BC Ministry of the Environment. Along with local environmentalists, they established a remediation task force and a restoration society, raising millions in donations, equipment, and labour from the province, the landowners, and the Pacific Salmon Federation. Remediation began in earnest in 2006. By 2009, in an astonishing display of natural resilience, 40,000 pink salmon returned to spawn in the Tsolum river.

But most mines come to a sad, shameful end. Many are simply abandoned, toxic waste and all, and the property gets flipped from one owner to the next like a hot potato. Often owners deny responsibility until it is forced upon them, and then they delay taking action until they are backed into a corner.

Jordan River — Diitiida

That seems to be the case at Jordan River, 70 km west of Victoria on Vancouver Island, where an old copper mine is leaching sulphuric acid into the river and the ocean. The former mine sits on a hillside above the Strait of Juan de Fuca, surrounded by crumbling hydro dams and logging debris, abandoned by both the government and its corporate owners.

The river estuary, traditionally called “Diitiida,” is a historic place where the original Pacheedaht and Ditidaht people lived before the Great Flood. Two Indigenous villages were built along the river, and the place was prized for its salmon and berries.

A 2011 BC Hydro survey deemed the area “unsafe” due to tailings contamination.

Over the course of the mine’s life, the estuary below was built up and filled with rocks, soil, and waste. Much of the fill washed downstream when the mining tunnels collapsed. The resulting washouts eventually led the provincial Ministry of Mines to order the mine to close in 1974. The fish populations, already suffering from the impacts of logging and hydro dams, were wiped out by the steady trickle of acid runoff.

Meanwhile, a small community grew up near the former village sites, next door to a campground and a log sort yard. But a 2011 BC Hydro survey deemed the area “unsafe” due to tailings contamination and the risk of the hydro dam collapsing.

In 2017, BC Hydro purchased eleven homes along the waterfront and demolished them. In 2018, it sold 28 hectares of the river delta to a corporation owned by members of the Pacheedaht First Nation. A day of celebration marked the return of Diitiida to Pacheedaht control.

2018 also brought a roundtable discussion about restoring the estuary. Representatives from the Province, Pacheedaht First Nation, local residents, and the mine site’s new owners, Teck Cominco, participated. But no restoration plans have been implemented, and as the company twiddles its thumbs, it’s clear that talk alone won’t save the river or bring back the salmon.

The first rule of business says, “Privatize profits, socialize losses.” The loss of salmon stocks, wildlife habitat, and drinkable water is not borne by those who reap the benefits. Mines boom and bust, but the damage to animals, ecosystems, and people can last forever.

Thirty-two years ago, a spark ignited methane gas and coal dust, causing an explosion that killed 26 workers at the Westray Mine in Nova Scotia. In 1958, the Springhill Mine Disaster took the lives of 75 miners. To paraphrase a report from EarthWorks and MiningWatch Canada: The safest mine is the one that is not built.

Canadian mining companies insist their operations reflect the world’s safest and most sustainable practices. Too often, however, those same companies inflict permanent damage on the ecosystems and communities where they operate. environmental enforcement at home allows companies to dodge timely cleanup of toxic mine sites.

Decades of citizen pressure for legislative reform may one day succeed in creating a system where corporations are required to repair the damage they cause, So far, restoration seems to depend on political will and public money.

Zoe Blunt is a land and water protector and editor-in-training at the Watershed Sentinel.

Watershed Sentinel Original Content

Can we ask for a little of your time, and some money?

We can’t do this without you. Support independent media and donate a little or a lot – every bit makes a difference. And when you give those precious extra dollars, we treat them as the honour it is and use them carefully to pay for more stories, more distribution of information, and bonus copies to colleges and libraries. Donate $50 or more, and we will publicly thank you in our magazine. And we always thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

Related Stories