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Editorial: Province should clean up mine sites

When it takes a tireless volunteer and a law student to do the government’s work, something is wrong.

When it takes a tireless volunteer and a law student to do the government’s work, something is wrong. Ken Farquharson, a retired engineer, and law student Matthew Nefstead tracked down the former owner of an abandoned copper-mine dump that has been contaminating the Jordan River for decades. Thanks to their work, a cleanup is planned, and all those who have been working to bring salmon back to the river are seeing signs of hope.

It is, as Calvin Sandborn of the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre says, a good-news story.

“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,” he says.

The site, now known as Sunro Mine, was owned by Cominco and leased to various companies over the years. Waste and other materials were dumped on the east bank of the river starting in 1956. Within a year or two, coho and chum salmon died out. The last pink salmon were recorded spawning in 1971.

Although more than 1.3 million tonnes of ore came out of the mine between 1962 and 1978, and current evidence shows the site is still contaminated, the Ministry of Energy and Mines gave it a clean bill of health in 1993. “Final reclamation carried out and found satisfactory,” the ministry wrote.

Not satisfactory to the salmon, however. For them, the river was a dead zone.

Farquharson learned about the mine and the contamination in 2012, after the Pacheedaht First Nation and B.C. Hydro had already begun trying to bring the fish back to the river that once supported more than 5,000 spawning salmon every year. They were working on getting a stable flow of water and improving habitat.

But the copper contamination was the problem that wouldn’t go away. Cleaning it up required finding out who was legally responsible for the site.

That should clearly be the provincial government’s job. The government is supposed to regulate mines, but it didn’t know who to bring to account.

Farquharson went to Sandborn and the Environmental Law Centre, who set Nefstead to work. He discovered that Cominco was responsible, and Cominco is now owned by Teck Resources Ltd.

That dropped the waste dump in Teck’s lap.

To its credit, Teck has been very co-operative on the Jordan River project, Farquharson said. It commissioned an assessment by SNC-Lavalin, which found three sources of copper contamination. The ministry confirmed that levels are high enough to rate it as high-risk.

A remediation plan is due by June 2017.

While the government is now supervising the efforts, the question is: Why did it take so long and why didn’t the ministry know what was going on with the site?

It is further evidence of the problems identified by the auditor general after the breach of the tailings pond at the Mount Polley mine. The auditor made 17 recommendations, and the government rejected only one, the one that said the ministry shouldn’t be in charge of regulating the same industry it is responsible for promoting.

In the case of the Sunro Mine, regulatory oversight was lacking because the province didn’t know the site was still contaminated and didn’t know where to send the bill.

With mine sites dotting the province, how many other rivers and streams need the help of people like Farquharson and Nefstead? The answer should be “none,” because the ministry should be taking responsibility for protecting them.

As Sandborn said: “We don’t have enough law students in the province to clean up the rivers that need cleaning up.”