Canadian government acts to clean up “deadly mining aftermath”

The Canadian government has announced a private-public partnership agreement costing up to CA $75 million (US $48 million) to clean up one of the worst sources of metal pollution in North America.

The Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks and the Ministry of Energy and Mines have announced the move to remediate the Britannia Mine, 31 miles (50 km) north of Vancouver in British Columbia. The mine, once the largest copper producer in the British Empire, operated from 1905 to 1974 yielding nearly 50 million tonnes of copper, silver, zinc, and gold, but Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) has been a longstanding problem at the site. This is where iron sulphide minerals in the mountain react chemically with water and air to create sulphuric acid, dissolving heavy metals present in the rock and washing them through the pits and tunnels of Mount Sheer into the Howe Sound drainage system. The high level of rainfall (two metres per annum) and 100 miles (160 km) of tunnel exacerbate the problem.

Britannia’s AMD contains elevated levels of copper, zinc, cadmium, iron, aluminium, and other metals highly toxic to fish and other aquatic life. ARD effluent draining into Howe Sound also severely affects marine life including up to five million migrating salmon each year.

The cleanup plan, approved by the cabinet, and to be started within a year, includes provisions for treating the acid rock drainage as well as contaminated soil at the site and sediments in Howe Sound. It includes a settlement agreement with the corporate parties named as potentially responsible under provincial contaminated sites and mining legislation. The potentially responsible parties will pay CA $30 million (US $19 million) into a cleanup fund in exchange for release from future liabilities at the Britannia mine site.

A key component of the complex plan is an agreement with Copper Beach Estates Ltd., the owner of the property to build a treatment plant on site neutralising the acid and capturing the metals from the 50 million litres of toxic runoff that enters Howe Sound each day, for which the company has committed CA $5 million (US $3.2 million). In addition, Copper Beach will build a road to transport treatment sludge, contaminated soils and sediments to the old mine site further up the mountain.

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