Times Colonist

Old cop­per mine still foul­ing Jor­dan River

- AMY SMART Jordan · Jordan River · Iceland · Belarus · Centre · Austria · British Columbia · Belgium · Colombia · Columbia University · Island Records · Metchosin · Victoria · Western Forest Products · Teck Cominco · Bill Bennett

From atop a steep slope look­ing down on a nar­row por­tion of the Jor­dan River, Ken Far­quhar­son points to two saplings mak­ing their way out of the crumbly earth near his feet.

The saplings are an un­usual shade of yel­low-green and they’re the only things growing on land the Min­istry of Environmen­t re­cently con­firmed as “high risk.”

“See these lit­tle ones, they’re not very happy,” Far­quhar­son says.

For the Metchosin res­i­dent, clean­ing up the toxic site — a for­mer cop­per mine dump — is vi­tal if salmon are go­ing to re­turn in full force to the Jor­dan River be­low. The re­tired en­gi­neer has made it a per­sonal project since 2012 and now, it looks like it might hap­pen: A re­spon­si­ble party has been iden­ti­fied, a site-risk assess­ment has been con­ducted and an re­me­di­a­tion plan is due by June 2017.

But the process has raised ques­tions about why it took one mo­ti­vated in­di­vid­ual, with help from the Univer­sity of Vic­to­ria’s En­vi­ron­men­tal Law Cen­tre, to make it hap­pen.

“It’s a re­ally good news story, be­cause I think the peo­ple of Vic­to­ria can look for­ward to the re­turn of salmon in Jor­dan River,” the law cen­tre’s legal di­rec­tor Calvin Sand­born said.

“But then there’s a ter­ri­ble news story. And the ter­ri­ble news story is why govern­ment didn’t get on this a long time ago.”

The site

The fol­low­ing time­line is based on in­for­ma­tion col­lected from Far­quhar­son, the UVic En­vi­ron­men­tal Law Cen­tre and SNCLavalin’s site in­ves­ti­ga­tion re­port.

Com­inco ac­quired rights to mine cop­per and gold at the site now known as Sunro Mine in 1919. Those rights were later leased to other com­pa­nies. In 1956, dump­ing of waste and other ma­te­ri­als be­gan on the east bank of the river. Coho and chum died out around 1957.

A to­tal of 1,329,034 tonnes of ore was mined and milled un­der­ground be­tween 1962 and 1978.

In 1963, a mine and mill­room flooded and a large vol­ume of con­tam­i­nated ma­te­rial was washed into the river.

The last pink salmon were recorded spawn­ing in the un­con­tam­i­nated wa­ter be­low B.C. Hy­dro’s plant in 1971, when the plant moved from the east to west side of the river.

De­spite ev­i­dence to­day that shows the site is still con­tam­i­nated, the Min­istry of En­ergy and Mines wrote in a 1993 let­ter, “fi­nal recla­ma­tion car­ried out and found sat­is­fac­tory.” Com­inco re­quested and re­ceived writ­ten con­fir­ma­tion that the prop­erty could be re­turned to the Crown and sur­ren­dered all claims.

The prop­erty is now par­tially owned by Western For­est Prod­ucts.

Far­quhar­son be­came aware of the for­mer cop­per mine in 2012 as a board mem­ber on B.C. Hy­dro’s coastal fish and wildlife com­pen­sa­tion pro­gram.

“I had at­tended a meet­ing of par­ties in­ter­ested in the fu­ture of the Jor­dan River to find that every­one was very pes­simistic about its fu­ture due to the longterm con­tam­i­na­tion by cop­per from the mine waste dump. More wor­ry­ingly, no­body seemed in­ter­ested in get­ting the sit­u­a­tion cor­rected,” he wrote in a let­ter to the law cen­tre.

The law cen­tre agreed to help him and in June 2012, stu­dent Matthew Nef­stead iden­ti­fied the re­spon­si­ble com­pany to be Com­inco, now owned by Teck Re­sources Ltd.

“If one com­pany gets folded into an­other com­pany, they not only take the as­sets, but they also take the li­a­bil­ity,” Sand­born said.

Teck is the same com­pany that in 2012 was or­dered to pay an es­ti­mated $1 bil­lion in cleanup costs, when byprod­uct from its smelter in Trail ended up in the Up­per Columbia River.

At Jor­dan River, Teck has been very co-op­er­a­tive, Far­quhar­son said. It met with in­ter­ested par­ties in 2013 and com­mis­sioned a pre­lim­i­nary risk assess­ment of the site in part­ner­ship with Western For­est Prod­ucts, un­der the Min­istry of Environmen­t’s in­struc­tion. The re­port, con­ducted by SNCLavalin and com­pleted this June, con­firmed three main sources of cop­per con­tam­i­na­tion in the river, in­clud­ing two waste rock piles and wa­ter dis­charg­ing from a tun­nel por­tal, the law cen­tre said.

The Min­istry of Environmen­t, which was un­aware the prop­erty was still con­tam­i­nated un­til it was ap­proached with con­cerns about the salmon, said lev­els at the site ex­ceed min­istry stan­dards, clas­si­fy­ing it as high risk.

The min­istry has asked Teck and Western For­est Prod­ucts for a re­me­di­a­tion plan and sched­ule by June 2017.

“Teck is now work­ing co­op­er­a­tively with the cur­rent prop­erty owner, for­mer prop­erty owners and reg­u­la­tors to as­sess ex­ist­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions and any po­ten­tial restora­tion that may be rec­om­mended,” Chris Stan­nell, se­nior com­mu­ni­ca­tions spe­cial­ist with Teck Re­sources Ltd., said in an email to the Times Colonist.

Western For­est Prod­ucts did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment in time for deadline.

The con­text

For Calvin Sand­born, lack of po­lit­i­cal will to re­me­di­ate a con­tam­i­nated mine site feed­ing into a po­ten­tial salmon habi­tat is part of what the au­di­tor gen­eral’s of­fice meant when it said in a May re­port that “busi­ness as usual” can’t con­tinue.

The au­di­tor gen­eral came down hard on B.C.’s environmen­t and en­ergy min­is­ters for slack com­pli­ance and en­force­ment, in the wake of the Mount Pol­ley tail­ings­dam fail­ure.

“Why wasn’t the govern­ment act­ing on this? Why was it left to a law stu­dent to doc­u­ment this and bring to its at­ten­tion — hey, ac­tu­ally, Teck is the legally re­spon­si­ble party and they should be act­ing to re­me­di­ate. This is very dis­qui­et­ing be­cause we don’t have enough law stu­dents in the prov­ince to clean up the rivers that need clean­ing up,” Sand­born said.

“There’s an ur­gent need for govern­ment to do com­pre­hen­sive re­view of all the salmon streams in this prov­ince that are down­stream from old mines.”

He said it fits with other ex­am­ples, like the Banks Is­land gold mine, which was only in­spected af­ter a whistle­blower brought it to the prov­ince’s at­ten­tion. But Jor­dan River could also join other good news sto­ries. Pinks and chi­nook salmon have started to re­turn to Bri­tan­nia Creek, where the prov­ince is spend­ing about $1.5 mil­lion to de­com­mis­sion six dams.

In its re­port, the au­di­tor gen­eral em­pha­sized the risk of “reg­u­la­tory cap­ture,” im­ply­ing reg­u­la­tors wind up serv­ing the needs of in­dus­try. It also found ma­jor mines are un­der-se­cured by more than $1.2 bil­lion.

Asked who would be ob­li­gated to pay for the Sunro Mine cleanup, the Min­istry of Environmen­t re­sponded that un­der its con­tam­i­nated sites reg­u­la­tion, “any for­mer or cur­rent land owner is re­spon­si­ble for any clean-up costs as­so­ci­ated with en­vi­ron­men­tal con­tam­i­na­tion (i.e., pol­luter-pays prin­ci­ple).”

The prov­ince ac­cepted the au­di­tor gen­eral’s rec­om­men­da­tion, committing to act on 16 of 17 of them — all but the call for an in­de­pen­dent body to take charge of reg­u­la­tion, in­stead of the Min­istry of En­ergy and Mines, which is also re­spon­si­ble for pro­mot­ing the in­dus­try.

In re­sponse to the Times Colonist’s re­quest for an in­ter­view with Min­is­ter Bill Bennett, the Min­istry of En­ergy and Mines said he was un­avail­able and of­fered a writ­ten state­ment. It was not de­liv­ered in time for deadline.

What’s next

Ef­forts to re­store salmon to the Jor­dan River were al­ready un­der­way in­volv­ing both the Pacheedaht First Na­tion and B.C. Hy­dro, when Far­quhar­son set his sights on the con­tam­i­nated mine prop­erty.

Their ef­forts have in­volved fo­cus­ing on im­prov­ing river wa­ter qual­ity and habi­tat with­out tak­ing on the mine.

In 2008, B.C. Hy­dro be­gan fish­flow re­leases to en­sure steady flow, as part of its wa­ter use plan. Be­fore then, flow was de­pen­dent on rains, so dry times meant higher con­cen­tra­tions of cop­per.

Fish­eries bi­ol­o­gist David Burt said B.C. Hy­dro now re­leases 0.3 to 0.4 cu­bic me­tres per sec­ond from its Elliott Dam. And fish are re­turn­ing: Rain­bow trout and some coho fry have reap­peared in the river — it’s just not known what hap­pens to them once they leave.

The miss­ing piece of the puz­zle has been cop­per cleanup.

“The quandry is that, though they are sur­viv­ing in there, we still have the cop­per flow­ing into the river and it’s still ba­si­cally unchecked,” Burt said.

“Just be­cause [the fish] are in there doesn’t mean that they’re not being com­pro­mised.”

At its peak, an es­ti­mated 5,000 salmon spawned in the Jor­dan River, Far­quhar­son said.

“At one point, it sup­ported a whole First Na­tions vil­lage. It was once amaz­ingly pro­duc­tive,” Burt said.

For his part, Far­quhar­son is pre­pared for a po­ten­tially long wait. He’ll look for­ward to the re­me­di­a­tion plan and go from there.

“The prov­ince has to ap­prove it, then it has to be funded, then it has to be done,” he said.

“If this is done by 2020, I’ll break out a bot­tle of cham­pagne, I think.”

 ??  ?? A con­tam­i­nated mine de­posit on the bank of the Jor­dan River mea­sures about 80 me­tres long, 16 me­tres wide and seven me­tres deep.
A con­tam­i­nated mine de­posit on the bank of the Jor­dan River mea­sures about 80 me­tres long, 16 me­tres wide and seven me­tres deep.
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