As a marker of progress, fish, plants and other animals are returning to Britannia Mine. Once the worst source of metal pollution in North America, the site is now a point of pride in British Columbia’s (B.C.’s) highly-regarded Crown Contaminated Sites Program (CCSP), which remains a bustling, ambitious endeavour at its halfway point.
Britannia is just one of 17 contaminated sites that B.C. has remediated since 2003, when the Auditor General’s recommendation of creating a specialized clean-up team became a reality. Since then, CCSP has been working to manage human health and environment risks at an additional 17 contaminated sites that remain in various stages of completion. Another 48 sites have been identified as low priority remediations.
Of the 84 contaminated sites on B.C’s record, there are 70 mine sites, nine industrial sites, two landfill sites, two pulp mill sites and one forestry site, according to the biennial Crown Contaminated Sites Program 2014 report released April 8, 2014. Managed by B.C.’s Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, the report is designed to keep the public apprised of the ongoing progress remediating contaminated sites in B.C.
“These projects exemplify how we are harnessing innovation and science-based methods to help clean up contaminated sites,” states Steve Thomson, Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, in the report.
To help guide the remediation process, the CCSP uses a risk ranking methodology that has two components: a risk ranking support tool, which is a data entry and calculation spreadsheet that compares contaminants in soil, water, and sediment to regulatory standards. Additionally, the team uses an annual risk ranking workshop, which brings in experts on contaminated sites to analyze the current site inventory list.
Like many other provinces, these clean-up projects are funded mostly by taxpayers, the original polluters often long out of business.
“With regard to the private sector, the province operates on a polluter pays principle, and parties responsible for contamination are responsible for clean-up costs,” Greig Bethel, spokesperson for the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, told EcoLog News.
When possible, CCSP tries to hold companies accountable for the clean-up costs related to historical contamination, however, since 2003, B.C. has spent more than $277 million on contaminated sites, of which $177 million went solely toward remediation.
“Public funds are used only if private parties no longer exist and the site has defaulted to the province, or if the site poses an immediate unacceptable high risk to human health or the environment,” states the CCSP report.
In the case of Britannia Mine, the mine’s former operators contributed $30 million to the clean-up, which eventually tallied more than $46 million. The Britannia operation was once the largest copper producer in the British Commonwealth before it closed in 1974. Some 3,600 hectares of property were affected, and “even after it closed, the mine site continued to leach out an average of 300 kilograms per day of copper and zinc as well as small amounts of other metals,” notes theCCSP’s 2012 biennial report.
In 2007, the remediation won a Premier’s Award for facilitating a public-private partnership to finance, build, and operate a water treatment plant at the former mine.
The impact of Britannia Mine’s seepage was huge. So big, in fact, that B.C. has expanded its clean-up of the area to Furry Creek over 2014-2015.
As stated earlier, most of B.C.’s remediation projects involve former mines. Currently, CCSP is investigating hazards at the Howard Mine Tailings Site near Nelson, B.C., where the operation produced silver, gold and lead until 1938, affecting nearby Salmo River with tailings.
“Groundwater and surface water in the Salmo River directly adjacent to the tailings deposit contained elevated concentrations of cadmium and zinc,” states the 2014 CCSP report, which notes that CCSP is looking for contractors to undertake the remediation of the Howard Mine Tailings Site over the summer and fall of 2014.
Other B.C. mill remediation projects in the works include Atlin Ruffner Mills Tailings Site, Emerald Glacier Mill and Tailings Site, Bralorne Takla Historic Mercury Mine, Midway Mine, Toquaht Bay Marina and Campground Mowson Pond. While the last two sites are not former mines, the remediation relates to the impacts of former mines in the area.
B.C. is also working on projects at former septage lagoons in Millstream Meadows and an old waste coal site in Union Bay that has left iron staining and precipitates on the beach.
Since 2006, CCSP has used a master standing offer to hire environmental consultants for work on investigations, risk assessments, and remediation plans.
“The standing offer system reduces the time and effort needed to efficiently and fairly obtain the specialized scientific services required to assess and clean up contaminated sites,” the report states.