Shawnigan’s soil dump isn’t alone

One of the worst cases of continuing pollution is that of the historic Britannia Mines of Howe Sound, 45 kilometres north of Vancouver.

One of the worst cases of continuing pollution is that of the historic Britannia Mines of Howe Sound, 45 kilometres north of Vancouver.

It was champagne and celebration for many area residents last month upon word that the provincial Environment Ministry had pulled the permit for the controversial contaminated soil dump above Shawnigan Lake. But the fight to have it not just closed down permanently, but its 100,000 tons of imported soil removed, is by no means over.

Sad to say but there are numerous B.C. precedents of industrial waste dumps, many of them highly toxic to flora and fauna, continuing to pollute for years, often decades, after the industrial operations were closed down.

The most recent and most notorious case is that of an existing mine, the collapsed tailings pond dam at Mount Polley, three years ago. B.C. Mines Minister Bill Bennett was recently quoted as saying that, after three investigation and inspection reports, the province has implemented regulatory, enhancement and compliance changes to ensure such an event never happens again. (In this particular case the failure of an improperly designed dam released 24 million cubic metres of contaminated silt and water into nearby fish-bearing lakes and rivers.) Bennett expressed confidence in the “very strong, transparent method” of inspections and enforcement his department has recently imposed upon the industry.

But what about older and defunct industrial sites, ones abandoned prior to 1969 when previous reclamation legislation was enacted? By the Ministry’s own admission, “Since the late 1960s, approximately 45,412 hectares, or 0.05% of B.C.’s 95 million hectare landmass has been disturbed by major metal and coal mines. Of this, approximately 19,422 hectares (42%) has been reclaimed.”

That’s less than half! And that figure doesn’t include previous operations, some of which go all the way back to the great gold rushes of the previous century.

Even a partial list is horrific. As late as last October, metal contaminants, primarily copper, were detected in Jordan River coastal waters, the residue of mining for copper, gold and silver in this area since the turn of the last century through the late ’70s. Large-scale mining was discontinued 40 years ago but the Jordan of today is a far cry from what it was before industrialization, when its 165-kilometre-long channel was home to chum, pink and coho salmon.

Efforts are underway to remediate the old mine site and to rebuild the salmon runs but it’s predicted to be a long haul.

But times, belated though they be, are changing within governments, such as that cited above, and without. Just last summer a U.S. District Court ruled that Teck Resources, owners of the historic Trail smelter operations, are to pay U.S. $8.5 million in legal costs to the Confederated Tribes of the Colville, Wash. reserve for alleged contamination of the Upper Columbia River. Faced with a potential bill of $1 billion, Teck, according to a company spokesman, has already spent $75 million studying the potential risks to human health and the environment on the river as part of a settlement reached with the U.S. government. Water quality is said to meet Canadian and American standards and fish “are as safe to eat as those from any other water body in the state of Washington”.

One of the worst cases of continuing pollution is that of the historic Britannia Mines of Howe Sound. Situated 45 kilometres north of Vancouver, this was the site of the largest copper producing mine in the British Commonwealth in the early 1930s. Closed in 1974, it has been spewing toxic chemicals ever since. This ongoing mess has cost B.C. taxpayers $63.5 million so far, as the government is responsible for cleaning up abandoned properties on public Crown land “if the companies go bankrupt, no longer exist or the sites have defaulted back to the province”.

Last July, it was reported that this collective liability for the entire province has ballooned from an estimated $163.7 million to $508 million in the past two years! A further sticking point in the minds of environmentalists is the fact that the Ministry has declined the key recommendation that compliance and enforcement be made independent of industry influence.

Just last week, prompted by the Jordan River contamination, the University of Victoria Environment Centre filed a petition calling for a judicial inquiry into mining practices on behalf of the Fair Mining Collaborative which has the endorsement of 12 First Nations. “We’ve reached that historic juncture where mining regulation has failed on so many aspects that it’s really necessary for a judge to hold public hearings,” UVic’s Calvin Sandborn told the Times Colonist.

Mines haven’t been the only villains and minerals aren’t the only contaminants. Many other industries over the years have polluted the air with their chemical-laden exhausts, waterways with oils, with tars and with miscellaneous chemicals. Some of these health hazards, such as lead and asbestos to name but two, are now built into our homes and workplaces. Just a few years ago, asbestos was an integral component of buildings and building products; now it’s recognized as a serious threat to health when disturbed.

Which brings us back to Shawnigan’s dirty dirt. Will the dump be allowed to resume operation after all the legal actions are settled or is it truly shut down? If so, will the government ultimately demand that the contaminated soil be removed? If so, to where? Can it be remediated on-site? Whichever course is chosen, who’s going to pay for it?

The historical record, which we’ve barely touched upon in this column, is anything but reassuring.

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