Sustainability and the environment are two important parts of mining in today’s society. Overly optimistic thinkers say that mining can be eliminated as an activity essential to our lifestyle. Even with the advances in recycling technology they cite, I say they are dreaming. However, their opinion illustrates the shift of our society, bringing the expectation of environmental accountability to mining companies with activities both in industrialized countries and in the third world.

The Britannia Beach mine site was once the worst sources of heavy metal pollution in North America. An abandoned copper mine, the property was mined from 1905 to 1974 until the exhaustion of economical ore. Through an innovative agreement between the province of British Columbia, Canada, and EPCOR Utilities Inc., a company that provides power and water solutions, the acid rock drainage outflow from the abandoned mine workings is now collected and treated.

An average of 12 million litres is treated daily, preventing a total of about 650 kg of metals and contaminants from entering the Pacific Ocean at Howe Sound. A conventional High Density Sludge lime circuit raises the pH to ~9, precipitating metals and filtering them out, along with deactivated lime. This treatment plant became fully functional earlier this year. EPCOR provides much of the electricity used by the plant with a generator powered by the mine’s discharge flow, an efficient and admirable approach to sustainability.

However, the original water treatment contract awarded in 2004 by the Ministry of Sustainable Resource Management of the British Columbia government also included a company called BioteQ. It was anticipated that BioteQ would build a metal recovery circuit upstream of the EPCOR plant, to recover copper and zinc that would generate a saleable metal byproduct to offset water treatment costs. This did not occur, officially because “the bid criteria did not place sufficient long term cost or liability factors on waste sludge disposal to justify the incremental capital and operating costs of the BioteQ circuit.”

However, copper and zinc prices today are more than twice of what they were in 2004. There exists now greater than ever before the opportunity for the parties involved in the water treatment plant to significantly offset operating costs for a relatively small capital investment.

At current prices, some 3000 dollars a day in copper and zinc could be recovered in a mixed concentrate. Sales of these metals creates a revenue of about 1 million dollars a year, with maybe 250 000 a year additional operating costs. There would need to be a one-time capital investment of 2 million dollars to build the BioteQ circuit. However, increased savings would be seen in the water treatment plant expenses. Possibly 200 000 dollars a year less would be required for the purchase of lime, and sludge disposal costs might be reduced by 100 000 dollars. Considering that operating costs of the water treatment plant are about 1.2 million a year, finances would overall likely break even.

Currently, EPCOR has a contract to operate the water treatment plant for 20 years. The recovery of metals from the mine effluent has the potential to reduce costs enough that the plant could operate in continuum without further funding from the government or outside sources.

Furthermore, sustainability at Britannia Beach could be further enhanced with the harnessing of geothermal heat. The water flowing out of Britannia mine is a constant 12 degrees Celsius year round, and its high flow rate means there is a large energy potential that could be used by the community of Britannia Beach and its planned developments. A heat exchanger could be installed that transfers heat from the mine water to a network of insulated pipes throughout the community. Each home would have a heat pump that would heat the home in the winter and cool it in the summer. Unfortunately the capital cost of such a project is large, but once it is installed, further expansions to the system come at manageable costs. Geothermal heating costs are half that of conventional natural gas and propane heating, as well as making no impact on the environment.

Recent development at Britannia Beach is breathing new life into this small community. The dream is of a community that is sustainable and environmentally friendly is almost ironic considering how toxic the town site once was. I guess we learn the most from our biggest mistakes. Now that the pollution has stopped, the challenge is to let the public at large know that we hear their cries for accountability, and we’re doing our best.