If you drive 55 km north of Vancouver along the Sea-to-Sky highway you’ll come across the quaint community of Britannia Beach tucked beneath the elbowed mountains facing Howe Sound.

For the better part of the past century, Britannia Beach was home to a high successful copper mine held by Britannia Mine Company and later Anaconda Mining until it was deemed uneconomical and closed in 1974. Unfortunately, that’s not where the story ends.

The problem and solution

Following closure in the mid-70s, this site spewed out one tonne of heavy metals into Howe Sound every day, says John Meech, Professor of Mining Engineering and Director of CERM3—The Centre for Environmental Research in Minerals, Metals, and Materials—at the University of British Columbia.

“Environment Canada called it the worst single source of metallic pollution in North America,” says Meech.

In 2001, Meech and his research group at UBC installed a plug in the 2200 Level adit—an entrance—preventing pollution from entering the water system.

“Blue mussels began repopulating the mouth of the creek within six months and pink salmon were photographed spawning in the creek about 10 years later,”
he adds.

“Today a water treatment plant removes all the metals and neutralizes the effluent prior to discharge into Howe Sound—this demonstrates how fast Mother Nature can recover with a little help from us.”

Granted, the wide scale release of toxic metals into water systems is a dated practice—with mining companies utilizing technology to reduce their water use and minimize impact on the environment.

“Technology clearly is advancing but I think it’s also awareness that’s advancing,” says Jerry Danni.

Building trust

“Technology clearly is advancing but I think it’s also awareness that’s advancing,” says Jerry Danni, Vice President of Environment for Vancouver-based mining company Goldcorp. “There’s a lot more collaboration with local stakeholders, communities and groups like the World Wildlife Fund than there was twenty years ago.”

Not to mention, recognition that there’s not only a need for that collaboration but there’s value in it when it comes to building trust with stakeholders, adds Danni. The collaboration is an example of an increasing sensitivity towards the needs of multiple stakeholders—from first nation communities with cultural considerations to locals using the water for agriculture and recreation.

“Before we even turn over a shovel of dirt we ask how it’s going to impact our closure plan,” says Danni. “When we develop new mines we design for closure.”