Mine water could heat Britannia Beach

Friday, April 30th, 2004

Death of heavy metal is music to the ears of these pollution-fighters

William Boei

An artist’s sketch of Britannia Beach, produced by a design workshop of landscape architects and stakeholders. The old mine town south of Squamish would be transformed into a tourist town. CREDIT: Vancouver Sun files

University of B.C. researchers are designing a community-wide geothermal heating system for Britannia Beach, using the same runoff water that made the Howe Sound community one of the worst mine pollution sites in North America.

The system would extract heat from the warm water that runs out of the old Britannia copper mine, said UBC mining engineering professor John Meech.

“If we can pull this off, it helps move Britannia from being the eyesore of the industry to something that becomes a showcase for the world,” said Meech, who heads UBC’s Centre for Environmental Research in Minerals, Metals and Materials.

The project has not yet been funded or approved by the provincial government, but it would work hand-in-glove with an acid water treatment plant the province is commissioning to strip heavy metals, especially copper and zinc, from the mine runoff.

The government said this week it has short-listed three consortiums bidding to build the treatment plant as a public-private partnership. The plant is scheduled to open in the fall of 2005.

UBC mining engineers have built two gigantic plugs in old mine shafts to block multiple runoff sources and divert them into a single stream that is being piped directly into the deep layers of Howe Sound instead of flowing down Britannia Creek. One plug, built of sand, gravel and clay and being installed this year, is known as the Millennium Plug, because it is expected to last 1,000 years.

“Britannia Creek is now free of significant copper and zinc levels, and there are signs of salmon fry coming back to the mouth of the creek,” Meech said.

The treatment plant is expected to eliminate — almost overnight — the heavy-metal pollution that has created a dead zone in Howe Sound since the mine closed in the mid-1970s.

The runoff from the mine is a nearly constant 13 C to 14 C year-round.

A geothermal plant would use heat exchangers to extract heat from the runoff, either before it enters the treatment plant or after it leaves, and use it to heat clean water that would circulate through a closed-loop community distribution system.

“Each user would have a heat pump that can extract the heat into their homes for personal use or into their business,” Meech said. “It would supply 45-degree water, which is more than enough for heating a home or even supplying hot water.”

The system could supply heat to 1,200 people, four times Britannia Beach‘s current population of over 300.

A utility company would be formed to install and maintain the distribution system. Residents’ heating bills would fall significantly, Meech said, and the provincial government, which now “owns” the mine runoff water, could expect to collect a royalty.

Meech said his research centre is considering a small demonstration project that would be built after the treatment plant opens, followed by a heat distribution system for the existing town. It would be expanded as new development takes place.

Development companies that own land north and south of the existing townsite have plans to build 400 to 500 new homes in the near future.

“We could heat all of that with what’s available,” Meech said. “And with that kind of phased-in approach, the economics look very attractive.

“Everybody benefits from this because it’s a resource that’s green. It takes what is currently a very negative thing and turns it into a positive. And everybody gets something out of it.”

There are also plans, first revealed last fall, to turn Britannia Beach into a major tourist stop capable of attracting 400,000 to 500,000 tourists per year.

The centrepiece would be an expanded B.C. Museum of Mining, with its existing museum in the old mine buildings representing past mining practices, exhibits of current environmental mining technology, and a research centre to develop new technologies such as magnetic levitation hoisting and isolating a virus that targets the bacteria that generate acid rock drainage.

Project backers are hoping to get funding from UBC and the federal government. The Museum of Mining is working on a feasibility study.

© The Vancouver Sun 2004

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