Mark Angelo: This Rivers Day, let us renew our commitment to cleaning up B.C.’s waterways

A remote waterway in the northwest corner of the province is a good place to start

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      By Mark Angelo

      Sunday (September 27) marks the 40th anniversary of B.C. Rivers Day.

      Since its beginnings in 1980, B.C. Rivers Day has become Canada’s largest river-appreciation event. In 2005, using the B.C. celebration as a template, we worked with the United Nations to create World Rivers Day, which now takes place in more than 70 countries worldwide.

      Our province has been a leader in honouring rivers. It should also be a leader in protecting them.

      But on each of B.C.’s 40 consecutive Rivers Day celebrations, a remote mine in the province’s northwest has been discharging toxic waste into the wild and remote Taku watershed.

      In fact, for more than six decades, acid rock drainage—the result of sulphide minerals in rock exposed to air and water—has flowed from Tulsequah Chief Mine at an estimated rate of 12.8 liters per second, or over 400 million liters per year.

      Though it may feel remote to many, the Taku is an important cultural and ecological hub for northwest B.C. and an economic driver for southeast Alaska. It encompasses nearly 2 million hectares at the heart of a series of transboundary watersheds and is the largest intact river system on the Pacific coast of North America. It boasts world-class runs of all five wild Pacific salmon species.

      Tulsequah Chief was operated by Cominco (later bought by Teck Resources) in the 1950s. Since it was abandoned in 1957, two companies have attempted to re-open the mine: Redfern Resources and, most recently, Chieftain Metals. Both went bankrupt before any cleanup could be completed.

      To this day, Tulsequah’s cleanup is hampered by legal red tape resulting from Chieftain’s receivership status. Cleanup orders have been issued by the province but not enforced.

      So, for 60 years, toxic waste has flowed into the Taku, which enters the Pacific Ocean 20 km south of Juneau. To say that Alaska’s state capitol—which depends on tourism and fishing as its main economic drivers—is unhappy with receiving B.C.’s mining waste is an understatement.

      Aerial view of the Taku River.
      Commander John Bortniak, NOAA Corps

      In addition, ending Tulsequah Chief’s pollution is a priority for Indigenous communities. The Douglas Indian Association in Alaska and the Taku River Tlingit First Nation in B.C., on whose traditional territory the mine sits, have both made repeated calls for the mine’s closure and a proper cleanup.

      Nearly two years ago, it finally appeared that cleanup was imminent when the B.C. government accepted a proposal from SRK Consulting and SNC-Lavalin to develop a mine remediation plan. That plan was released in August, funding has been secured for preliminary work, and B.C. is pushing to end Chieftain’s receivership status. 

      But progress has been slow—in part due to the pandemic—and it’s unclear when we might see any meaningful cleanup.

      This isn’t the first time the province has grappled with long-standing pollution due to mining. For much of the 20th century, Britannia Creek and the part of Howe Sound it empties into were considered amongst the most toxic places in North America due to acid drainage from the abandoned Britannia Copper Mine, which closed in 1974.

      Britannia Creek had no fish, no aquatic insects and no aquatic vegetation—no living creature could survive there. It was a dead river.

      Throughout much of the 1980s and ’90s, in conjunction with Outdoor Recreation Council and B.C. Institute of Technology, we undertook a major campaign to raise awareness about the state of Britannia Creek.

      In 2001, when we released our annual Endangered Rivers List and Britannia topped that list again, things finally started to change.

      That year, the University of British Columbia installed a plug to physically divert polluted run-off and most significantly, the province announced the building of a $60-million treatment plant (cost-shared between industry and government) that became fully operational in 2006. This facility now treats and neutralizes over four billion litres of polluted runoff each year, preventing a massive amount of heavy metal contaminants from reaching Howe Sound.

      In the years since, both the sound and the creek rebounded. Shellfish have recolonized once barren sea beds, whales and dolphins are regularly seen near the outlet and, in 2011, pink salmon returned to the creek for the first time in over 100 years.

      We successfully turned things around for Britannia Creek. We can do the same for the Taku.

      B.C. has taken some significant steps in the right direction but we can’t stop till the job is complete. This Rivers Day, as we celebrate the beauty of our province, let’s renew our commitment to protect and restore our life-giving waterways. Cleaning up the Taku would be a great place to start.

      Mark Angelo is the founder and chair of both B.C. and World Rivers Day and Rivers Chair of the Outdoor Recreation Council of B.C.