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13th January 2020
...continued from PART ONE

A step in the right direction

The province undertook its first major reclamation effort between 1988 and 1992.

Though the price tag was $1.5 million, it was a rather low-tech endeavour: covering the mine waste with a cap of glacial till and building a channel to divert water around the contaminated area.

Expectations were high, and the province even announced an ambitious target to reduce levels of dissolved copper by 95 per cent.

Water testing from 1993 to 1996, however, revealed the effort was a dismal failure. Although there was evidence of some decrease in copper levels in the following years, no one could agree on the reason.

The Tsolum River task force, which included community members, government agencies, local First Nations and industry, lobbied in 1998 to have the Tsolum declared one of B.C.’s most endangered rivers.

By 2003, a new solution was floated: diverting Pyrrhotite Creek in the Spectacle Lake wetland, located below the old mine mill site.

The goal was to use the natural wetland to filter out metals before the water was returned to Pyrrhotite Creek and eventually into the Tsolum River.

It worked, in part. Copper was reduced by another 40 per cent, falling well short of the target deemed acceptable for the Tsolum.

Deniseger says the partial success was an important milestone because it began to shift public perception of the Tsolum.

“We needed to change the perception that the river couldn’t be fixed,” Deniseger says. “After the wetland diversion it was like someone had flipped a switch. There was an instant positive impact on water quality.”

Yet Deniseger says he and others knew the passive form of treatment would likely be temporary at best; the small wetland’s peak effectiveness was expected to last between 10 and 15 years then gradually diminish over time.

The rebirth of a river

The positive results from the wetland approach also led to new interest from industry, catching the eye, in particular, of the Mining Association of B.C.

“Mount Washington was giving the mining industry a black eye,” White says. “They had an interest in being part of a good news story.”

Along with the provincial ministry of mines, the Mining Association of B.C. joined the multi-stakeholder Tsolum River Partnership and the search for a more permanent fix began.

The partnership settled on a novel technique that had been used in other industrial clean-up applications, but rarely for mine closures. It involved capping the offending mine waste with a thick bed of glacial till, then laying down a bituminous membrane — basically a half-centimetre-thick layer of bitumen sandwiched between robust geotextile fabric — over which another metre or so of glacial till would be laid.

Armed with a plan vetted and approved by mining reclamation experts, Deniseger and the partnership asked the Treasury Board for $4.5 million to carry out the project.

“Considering annual economic losses of of $2.7 million from the Tsolum, it was a good return on investment,” Deniseger says.

They got the funding, and in 2009, contractors got to work. Over the next six months, dump trucks carried more than 128,000 tonnes of gravel up the steep mine access road, while workers rolled out 12 kilometres of the membrane, heat sealing the joints by hand.

Afterwards, much of the site was covered with logging debris and replanted with alder as an erosion control measure.

Fish responded quickly.

In 2013, a little more than three years after the north pit was capped, roughly 61,800 pink salmon returned to spawn in the Tsolum, the largest return since the 1950s. In 2015, 129,000 pinks came back to the river — a record return since fish counts began in 1953.

For Brandt, it was like witnessing the rebirth of a beloved river.

“It felt really good to see fish back in the river, that all that volunteer effort had paid off,” Brandt says.

Wayne White calls it a “good news story,” one that has not gone unnoticed.

The Tsolum River Partnership received the 2011 Premier’s Award and the 2011 B.C. Mine Reclamation Award.

For his part, Deniseger was personally honoured in 2013 with the Premier’s Award for many contributions throughout his career, not the least of which was helping to forge the unique partnership necessary to help solve the Mount Washington problem.

So far the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources appears confident about the integrity of the Mount Washington mine remediation. In an emailed statement, a ministry spokesperson wrote that inspections in 2018 and 2019 “reviewed and determined that the observed erosion of the till is not compromising the cover,” noting that a rip discovered in the cover was promptly repaired.

“The contractor monitoring the site is reviewing the feasibility of establishing a vegetation cover,” the statement said.

The costs of failure are devastatingly expensive, and impacts can last for centuries. In the western United States, historic mining has damaged an estimated 25 per cent of all watersheds.

In Canada, taxpayers are on the hook for astronomical mine remediation costs at the Giant mine near Yellowknife and Yukon’s Faro mine, both of which surpass an estimated $1 billion, while the Britannia Mine on Howe Sound is expected to cost taxpayers $100 million.

The Tulsequah Chief mine, built in the 1950s along the B.C.-Alaska border, has leaked acid mine drainage into a tributary of the Taku, the prevailing salmon-producing river for southeast Alaska. Despite pressure from Alaska, the province has been unable to successfully clean up the mine for more than 60 years.

An ongoing community effort

On a sunny morning, biologist Caroline Heim, the Tsolum River Restoration Society project coordinator, walks a stretch of the lower Tsolum River in hip waders, looking for pink salmon that dart through the riffles in schools of 20 and 30.

More than 20 volunteers have turned out for the annual fish count. The water is so clear that Heim can easily spot redds, the shallow depressions of clean gravel scoured by female salmon into which they deposit eggs.

“The main issues facing the Tsolum today are low water flows in the summer and restoring riparian areas,” Heim says, adding that sedimentation from past logging continues to have downstream impacts on fish habitat.

In many ways, today’s Tsolum is a picture of a healthy river.

But the story of the river’s health is still evolving.

For White, Mount Washington is like a rocky relationship that you can’t get out of, no matter how hard you try.

Since the 2009 pit capping, runoff has begun to erode channels in a steep section of the covered mine site — the only part of the site not revegetated or covered with woody debris. The fear is that the membrane will be uncovered and exposed to damaging UV radiation.

“It’s something we’re concerned about,” White admits.

The Tsolum River Restoration Society plans to continue to put pressure on the government to make sure the mine is properly cleaned up.

Public pressure may be the most important piece of any mine reclamation effort, according to William Price, an environmental scientist with Natural Resource Canada’s mine effluent section.

Speaking at an October seminar in Smithers, hosted by the Bulkley Valley Research Centre, Price noted that a robust regime of maintenance and monitoring is critical to prevent the unraveling of years of volunteer effort and expensive remediation.

According to Price, it’s not whether or not society will need the products of sulphide mining, which go into electric vehicle batteries, flat screen TVs, wiring homes and countless other every day utilitarian needs. Rather, it’s whether or not we’ll manage mines responsibly.

Update December 17, 2019 at 3:45 p.m. PST. Two photo captions were updated to clarify the role of water drainage on the mine site. The first concerns the under pipe which drains water captured under the geomembrane. The second caption clarifies the image of Pyrrhotite Creek draining into the natural wetland. The costs of clean up at the Faro and Britannia mines were clarified to reflect the fact these amounts are estimates and not costs already paid by taxpayers.