Acid Mine Drainage Pollution, a Ticking Time Bomb in Vancouver Island Waterways

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In the fall of 1966, nearly 100 concerned British Columbians converged on the steps of the Legislature. Waving placards, they protested the dumping of tailings (a by-product of the ore milling process) from Western Mines’ Myra Falls mining operation into Buttle Lake, which is situated inside Strathcona Provincial Park on Vancouver Island.1 Described as “goop” by those who first found the grey, foul-smelling substance at the end of Myra Creek where it runs into the lake, these tailings appeared to be polluting this formerly pristine lake that was the source of drinking water for Strathcona Park Lodge, the Outdoor Education Centre on Upper Campbell Lake, and the community of Campbell River. There was concern too, that the Dolly Varden and Rainbow trout prevalent in the lake would be adversely affected.

Protest at BC Legislature in Victoria BC, 1966, against Western Mines dumping tailings into Buttle Lake. Courtesy of Myrna Boulding collection.

Mere months after the mine had begun operations, the number of fish in Buttle Lake had noticeably dwindled. Then in 1967, as a result of public pressure, fisheries biologist Dr. George Langford was sent to study the lake water. He concluded that the tailings would settle to the bottom of the lake and not cause any harm. He did however, recommend that studies on water quality should be continuously performed. To appease the public, Western Mines built a settlement pond to capture tailings. Still, runoff water from their facility continued to drain into Myra Creek.2

Many conservation- and ecology-minded citizens dismissed Langford’s theory, as it was clear that fish populations continued to suffer, and the water where the tailings were being dumped appeared cloudy. But were tailings indeed the culprit? Following Langford’s directive, biologists with Western Mines, the federal Fish and Wildlife Branch, and the Waste Management Department of the provincial Ministry of Environment continued to test Buttle Lake’s water for mineral content from 1971 through to 1980. High mineral content was reported and would certainly explain why the fish were dying, but importantly, the mining company’s own consultant, Henry E. Jackson, argued in 1980 that “tailings discharge alone could not explain the increase metal values in this lake, but that other major sources must also contribute to the metal loading.”3 His conclusions were supported by a report from Dr. Malcolm Clark of the Waste Management Department.4

Aerial view of Westmin (formerly Western Mines) operation in Strathcona Park, c.1986. Courtesy of Maureen Smith.

Clark was engaged to submit a follow-up report in 1982, precipitated by a proposal from the mining company, at this time known as Westmin Resources, to expand its mine and mill operation. Clark found that there was “a serious deterioration of the water quality in the Buttle Lake-Campbell River watershed” and he attributed this to Westmin’s operations. Later that year, Dr. Tom Pedersen, then with the Department of Oceanography at UBC, was asked by Henry Jackson to assess the effect of tailings going into Buttle Lake and to ascertain once and for all whether there was a relationship between tailings and high mineral content. Pedersen, with the help of Wayne White of the province’s Waste Management Department, discovered approximately 100 times the amount of zinc in the water above what would be considered as a safe level for human consumption, along with high levels of copper, lead, and cadmium, all of which are detrimental to fish populations. Clark noted in his 1982 report that the zinc alone would be “acutely toxic to salmonids.”5

Pedersen was aware of a little-known process called ‘acid mine drainage’ that consists of sulphuric acid interacting with ores and believed this to be the culprit, rather than tailings. He explained that when the first open pit mine was being dug out at Myra Falls, some bits of the ore below had been scraped off along with soil. This was then stacked as a waste dump within the mine site. These bits and pieces of ore and pyrite, when exposed to oxygen and rain, went through a process of sulphide oxidizing and the resulting by-product was sulphuric acid. The acid then dissolved minerals in the rock present in the waste dump, leaching zinc, lead, copper and cadmium from the ores. This toxic mix washed into Myra Creek in massive quantities, which explained the extremely high concentrations of minerals where the creek meets the lake. As a result of Pedersen’s conclusions, Westmin was ordered to collect water from its waste dump and to dig a half-metre deep ditch around the dump. The collected water would be put through a treatment plant, where lime dried up the hydroxides. Once implemented, this process proved to effectively reduce most of the dissolved metal.6

Acid mine waste in British Columbia. Courtesy of BC Spaces for Nature.

Around the same time protesters gathered on the steps of the provincial legislature to raise concern about tailings entering Buttle Lake, another pollution crisis was occurring in the Tsolum River, a mere 40 kilometres away from the Myra Falls mining operation as the crow flies, and bordering the eastern boundary of Strathcona Park. There, copper was found to be leaching into the Tsolum from a mine at Mount Washington, which had been abandoned by a Japanese company in 1967.

Wayne White, who is currently involved with the Tsolum River Restoration Society, explained that this created conditions in which fish, this time mainly Pink salmon and Steelhead, could not survive.7 Where once it was the norm for fishers to catch 40-pound Steelhead, suddenly there were none. The late Father Charles Brandt, a well-known local hermit who loved to fish the Tsolum, was one of the first to raise the alarm. Soon afterward, in 1969, the federal Department of Fisheries responded by building a hatchery in which to raise Pink salmon which normally would come to spawn in the river. However, Jack Minard, who served with the Tsolum Restoration Society for fourteen years beginning in the early 90s, recounts that the Pink salmon released from the hatchery did not return to spawn in the river.8

Father Charles Brandt at the Tsolum River. Courtesy of Tsolum River Restoration Society.

Minard today believes that mining companies had been aware of acid mine drainage during the 1960s, but that the prevailing philosophy of mining companies was that mineral content in the water was a “natural” phenomenon and inherent in watersheds. He agrees that about a 4% mineral content is natural, but in the Tsolum, when they used metal tools to measure puddles in the river, the metal was literally eaten away, and he estimates that the mineral content in the water was at about 80%.

By the mid 1970s, many began to realize that there was a serious problem in the Tsolum. Minard recalled that there was “huge community input” into how to resolve it, but no obvious solution, no money, and certainly no help from the company that had left the mine. By the early 1990s, Minard noted that mining was “receiving a black eye,” and he decided in 1993 to investigate the Tsolum by snorkelling. He started in the nearby Puntledge River where he observed plenty of life such as frogs and trout, and concluded that the Puntledge was a healthy waterway, however, when he reached the spot where the Puntledge meets the Tsolum, there was a “blast of hot water.” The unusually warm Tsolum was, in his estimation, a dead environment. When Premier Gordon Campbell came into power in 2001, he began allocating money to the Steelhead Society for research into the issue of acid mine drainage.9

Since it was known that an acidic aquatic environment feeds on oxygen, various methods were tried to keep oxygen away from the water, but it was soon realized that the committee to save the Tsolum required a very large input of cash. They were making inroads with the ministries throughout the 90s and in 1998, after a conference at Manning Park, the Ministry of the Environment, Land and Parks allocated four million dollars towards resolving the issue. With these funds, the Tsolum Restoration Society purchased a land cover, imported from Italy, that consisted of plastic on both sides and bitumen in the middle, and came in sixty-foot rolls. Work began in early 2009; the mine site was smoothed over, workers unrolled the product, then torched down the edges and sealed it. Later in that very same year, salmon came at last into the Tsolum – Pink salmon in large numbers, as well as Coho, Chum and a few Chinook. Minard snorkelled the river again in 2013 and was pleased to observe Rainbow and Cutthroat trout, reporting that “the river was black with Pink.”10 Steelhead, however, have so far failed to return.

Buttle Lake, 2018. Photograph by author.

Rainbow trout are now also common in Buttle Lake but the prized Dolly Varden have never returned, and certainly the fish population has never rebounded to that of the previous century – explorers fishing there in 1910 had reported catching as many as 70 trout in an evening.11 While it and the Tsolum can both be celebrated as seeming success stories, the Tsolum Restoration Society was dealing with a closed mine site, whereas the Myra Falls operation at Buttle Lake, now owned by Trafigura, is still open. Pedersen is doubtful about the lake’s long-term future. What will happen when one day, the mine closes and there is no longer supervision over the remaining waste? He considers that the waste dump at the mine is a “time bomb” that will exist for centuries to come, and contends that the tailings ponds constructed in 1982 are another source of sulphuric acid and there could be consequences from an earthquake in this seismically sensitive zone.12 This does not bode well for an exceptionally beautiful lake that is situated in a popular provincial wilderness park visited by thousands every year and that serves as a reminder of the legacy left by mines situated in ecologically sensitive areas.

Feature Image: Acid mine waste in British Columbia. Courtesy of BC Spaces for Nature.


1 Catherine Marie Gilbert, A Journey Back to Nature: A History of Strathcona Provincial Park (Victoria: Heritage House, 2021), 163. For more detail on the Western Mines operation in Strathcona Park, see Arn Keeling and Graeme Wyn, “‘The Park … is a Mess’: Development and Degradation in British Columbia’s First Provincial Park,” BC Studies 170 (Summer 2011): 119-150.

2 “Water District’s Appeal Is Upheld,” Campbell River Courier, 18 January 1967.

3 M.J.R. Clark, Impact of Westmin Resources Ltd. Mining Operation on Buttle Lake and the Campbell River Watershed vol. 1 (Victoria: Ministry of Environment, Waste Management Branch, June 1982), iii.

4 Clark, Impact of Westmin, iii and 90.

5 Clark, Impact of Westmin, 37.

6 Tom Pedersen interview with Catherine Gilbert, 17 December 2017, Victoria, BC.

7 Wayne White telephone interview with Catherine Gilbert, 19 July 2021, Alert Bay, BC.

8 Jack Minard telephone interview with Catherine Gilbert, 27 June 2021, Alert Bay BC.

9 Minard interview, 27 June 2021.

10 Minard interview, 27 June 2021.

11 Harry McClure Johnson, Strathcona 1910 Discovery Expedition, ed. Philip Stone (Quathiaski Cove, BC: WildIsle, 2012), 125.

12 Pedersen interview, 17 December 2017.

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I consider my self to be a social historian with a focus on British Columbia history, however with the release in 2021 of my history of Strathcona Provincial Park, A Journey Back to Nature, I am in danger of being labelled an environmental historian. There are worse fates, and in fact my current project centres on the life of David (Walrus) Garrick, an activist, environmentalist and eco-warrior, who was involved in Greenpeace’s early campaigns and many others throughout the 70s and 80s. Most notably, Garrick undertook an extensive study of Culturally Modified Trees on Hanson Island that prevented that island from being logged in the 1990s.

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