Britannia Beach residents are no doubt celebrating the welcome news that pink salmon are returning to their waters. In September, Global News reported on the appearance of salmon in Britannia Creek, once named “No-Fish Creek” by First Nations and previously ranked by Environment Canada as one of North America’s worst metal pollution sites. The mine closed in 1974, but a number of contributing factors led to a chemical reaction that caused highly acidic runoff containing large concentrations of dissolved metals. The polluted water was being deposited directly into Howe Sound.
So what happened to turn this all around? Over the past decade, UBC’s Centre for Environmental Research in Minerals, Metals, and Materials (UBC-CERM3) has conducted more than 50 projects directly aimed at solving environmental, social, and sustainability issues resulting from mining activities. One of them involved the December 2001 installation of a concrete plug in a horizontal mining tunnel located 2,200 ft from the top of Britannia Mountain. This type of plug can be designed to last for 1,000 years, is cheaper to build than concrete, and entirely resistant to the acidic water with which it might be in contact.
By January 2002, metal levels near the mouth of Britannia Creek had dropped by two orders of magnitude to levels below drinking water requirements and the pH had risen from 5.0 to 6.5. About 18 months later, schools of salmon fry were observed swimming in the mouth of the creek, and blue mussels, a highly sensitive species, were beginning to repopulate the foreshore on either side of the creek along Howe Sound. The total copper and zinc emissions had each declined by about 20 per cent, indicating metals were now significantly reduced. In 2005, together with Epcor Utilities Inc., the BC government opened up a water treatment plant that removed virtually all the metals entering Howe Sound.