14th January 2020
Three years of mining, 40 years of taxpayer clean up for river
EDITORS NOTE: This article is included on our website because Mining also affects our drinking watersheds and it is a direct result of the E and N Land Grant that affects us greatly on our Island. This is but a small example of the devastation that occurs. If you go the article link, you will see some wonderful, amazing pictures as well.
Wayne White parks his pick-up at the end of a bumpy logging road and steps out where Pyrrhotite Creek squeezes through a tiny slot in the bedrock.
It’s an innocuous looking trickle, but for decades this creek carried toxic effluent from the abandoned Mount Washington copper mine, virtually killing the Tsolum River.
“Four years of mining and a 40-year reclamation effort,” White, president of the Tsolum River Restoration Society, says as he gazes out over the Comox Valley on the central east coast of Vancouver Island.
He points to where the Tsolum River winds to its confluence with the Puntledge River, a few kilometres from Comox Harbour.
In 1967, after a year of construction and less than three money-losing years of operation, the Japanese backers of this ill-fated open-pit mine went bankrupt, leaving behind mounds of copper ore and waste rock blasted from the north side of Mount Washington.
Perched 1,300 metres above sea level, the mine was plagued from the start by a deep snowpack that lingered well into summer and made work difficult.
The miners walked away, but the environmental impact didn’t.
Today, it lives on as a textbook example of the complex and long-term challenge of mitigating acid rock drainage.
When mine waste and tailings are exposed to air and water, oxidation occurs. If mineral conditions are right, this process can produce acidic runoff capable of damaging downstream aquatic environments for decades — even centuries — if left unchecked.
Even before the last ore truck rumbled down the mountain, exposed mine waste was already leaching metal into Pyrrhotite Creek that would eventually decimate fish populations in the Tsolum River.
The cost to the local economy was pegged at between $2 and $3 million per year in lost fishing opportunities alone.
It took a multi-decade, multi-stakeholder effort to clean up this mine and nurse the Tsolum River back to health.
But when it comes to metal mines, the remediation work is never really over.
White understands this all too well. Before retiring several years ago, he was a career civil servant who worked in the environment ministry’s pollution control branch.
“We’ve learned as a community group that we constantly need to keep our foot on the gas to make sure government does what it says it’s going to do,” he tells me.
Father Charles Brandt, another local concerned with the river, took a rather unconventional route to river conservation.
He was raised on a farm in Kansas, served in the U.S. Airforce and briefly studied ornithology at Cornell University, before turning to theology. In 1948, he was ordained into the Anglican church, before converting to Catholicism. He joined a Benedictine monastery in Oklahoma and eventually, this winding path led him to Vancouver Island.
In 1965, he moved to “The Hermitage,” a pastoral property next to the Tsolum River, north of Courtenay, where he lived until 1970.
Brandt moved there as part of a plan to commune spiritually with nature, but his early days at The Hermitage also introduced him to fly fishing — and, eventually, a lifelong commitment to the Tsolum itself.
He would prove to be as dedicated to river conservation as he is to his faith. Brandt played a crucial role in the establishment of the Tsolum River Restoration Society, a leading force in the river’s rehabilitation.
“The first winter I was at The Hermitage I was walking across the Farnham Road bridge and looked down and saw a fisherman holding a beautiful 22-pound steelhead,” Brandt, now 97, says, sitting in the living room of his home on the Oyster River.
A mine cleanup that fell through the cracks
The Mount Washington mine is located on private land, thanks to a legacy that dates back to 1884, when a coal baron named Robert Dunsmuir was granted land on Vancouver Island — a giveaway that would eventually total 8,100 square kilometres, and included surface and subsurface rights.
In the ensuing years, these rights were parceled up and sold to various interests, creating a muddy jurisdictional tangle that made it difficult for any one company to be held responsible for cleanup of the mine.
The mine site’s ownership remains divided between companies and the provincial government. Better Resources Ltd. owns the precious metal, forest company Timberwest owns the trees and surface rights, and the Crown owns the subsurface rights.
Had the site been on Crown land, the abandoned mine would have fallen under the Ministry of Environment’s contaminated sites regulation — but being on private land it slipped through the cracks and landed in a sort of jurisdictional purgatory.
Making things more complicated, the mine’s closure also predated the introduction of reclamation regulations under the Mines Act in 1969. These regulations, now called the Health, Safety and Reclamation Code, hold companies accountable to “protect and reclaim land and watercourses affected by mining.” The act also requires mining companies to post financial security to pay for clean-up (although amounts required under B.C. laws are regularly criticized for being woefully inadequate).
In the case of the Mount Washington mine, the absence of a clear path forward meant the job of sounding the alarm fell to volunteers like White and Brandt.
‘No fish in the river’
Brandt became hooked on steelhead fishing at a time when metal leaching from Mount Washington had yet to trickle its way down through the watershed.
Back in the 1940s, the Tsolum was an angler’s paradise, with large numbers of pink, coho, chum and steelhead salmon.
But even then, the watershed was far from pristine.
Industrial logging — during a time when the importance of riparian setbacks to river health was poorly understood — caused erosion that damaged the natural shape and flow of the river and the pools, riffles and gravel spawning beds that are so important to fish. So did the removal of tonnes of gravel from the riverbed used to construct the runways at the Canadian Forces Base in Comox in the early 1940s.
Despite these challenges, the river managed to support healthy runs of salmon — until the acid runoff took its toll.
The spectre of acidic runoff remained more or less hidden until 1982, when the Department of Fisheries and Oceans released 2.5 million fry from a test hatchery on Headquarters Creek into the Tsolum. Two years later, a mere 10 pinks were counted in the river.
Pink returns tend to fluctuate greatly, but this decline was seen as catastrophic and mobilized the local steelhead-fishing community.
“We started writing letters to everybody we could think of in government telling them that the Tsolum River was dead,” Brandt recalls.
That caught the interest of John Deniseger, a government biologist heading up the Ministry of Environment’s environmental impact assessment branch at the Nanaimo office. Though the presence of copper in the Tsolum River was already known to fisheries scientists, the link between metal leaching at the mine and copper spikes in the river was poorly understood.
“It took a couple of years of detective work in the early 1980s. We knew there were no fish in the river, we just needed to show why,” Deniseger, now retired, says over the phone from his home in Bowser.
A pulse of springtime, copper-laced water
The Mount Washington mine poses unique challenges for local rivers, in part because of its location high in the watershed where snow can be deep enough to bury a four-storey building.
Runoff from Pyrrhotite Creek — fed by snow melting high above near the Mount Washington mine — peaks in May and June, sending a pulse of copper-laced water into the Tsolum in late spring and early summer at the precise time when the river’s water levels are lowest. If the flux of toxic run-off had come at times when water levels were already high, natural dilution could have been at least part of the solution, without anyone pointing a finger at the mine site.
The timing was poor for another reason; copper-laced water flowed into the Tsolum at a particularly sensitive time for fish populations, when fry are only just emerging from their gravel spawning beds and are at their most vulnerable.
Though the pinks leave the river earlier in the spring — thereby avoiding peak copper levels later in the season — the overall health of the river was degraded, Deniseger says, making it hostile to salmon, trout and the freshwater invertebrates on which young fish depend.
Deniseger’s sampling showed that, by the late 1980s, spring peaks of copper in the Tsolum ranged between 70 and 90 parts per billion — four to six times higher than the 15 parts per billion benchmark considered to be toxic to fish over the long term.
Further testing enabled Deniseger to zero in on the north pit of the mine as the primary source of acidic runoff.
Locals now knew they had a toxic river on their hands, yet it would take many more years of trial, error and community pressure on the government until anything was done to set it right.
...continued in PART TWO