Province shoulders mine waste response

Ashley Fitzpatrick
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Environment Canada says feds were not asked for help or advice

At Eddy's Restaurant in South Brook, soup is boiled, french fries crisped and pot after pot of coffee dripped for the regulars. This week, all of the cooking and brewing has been done using bottled water.

"Oh my glory to the world! We've went through hundreds of litres," said restaurant owner Wallace McKay, speaking with The Telegram Thursday afternoon.

Whether for stocks, gravies or sauces, he said, True North bottled water has been used.

The water has come in regular deliveries of collections of hefty, 18-litre bottles, lugged into the restaurant and around the kitchen by the small business owner and his staff.

The switch to spring water was required for the restaurant to stay open, after a non-consumption advisory was issued for the town's water supply Monday morning.

The order was a direct result of the failing of a tailings dam about 25 kilometres away, at the old Gullbridge copper mine site. With mine waste pouring into the local water system around 7 a.m., the town's water was put on watch.

According to Environment Minister Tom Hedderson, that watch - mainly for a spike in heavy metals such as copper and zinc - will continue into the new year.

"The town supplies us with the bottles that go in your cooler type thing, and for drinking water it's fine and dandy," McKay said, hardly fazed by events of the past few days.

Yet the big, heavy bottles of water have been tough for his staff to work with.

"As far as the business goes, we've got to make a decision today, basically, whether our restaurant's going to stay open. But I don't know what's going to happen as far as loss of revenue, if we're going to be compensated by - I don't know," McKay said. "I haven't thought much about it."

He was asked about the old mine and the mine waste impounded there since the late-1960s and early 1970s.

"You can't blame anyone because, at the time, when it was done, it was the proper thing to do the way they did it," he said.

"At that time, just like a lot of places around - not only in Newfoundland but all over probably the world - what they did was acceptable and no one knew the difference."

Regulations to install and bolster environmental protections have changed since the earliest days of provincial mining.

"We have a history of mining here that goes back to 1864," said Memorial University of Newfoundland earth science professor Derek Wilton.

Wilton said even the province's earliest mines left behind holes or mine shafts that had to be fenced off and otherwise marked for public protection in more recent years.

Later, larger mines and heavy industry operations brought new challenges, with remediation requiring more expensive operations, from tearing down old buildings to removing contaminated soil.

"The thing is the technical and the environmental regulations have been really tightened up over the last 50 years, basically," Wilton said, noting newer mines have plans for decommissioning and closure. "It's a different world now."

As for South Brook, the province had hired Marine Contractors to reinforce the old dam, left on the provincial books after the passing of so many years.

The provincial government has been shouldering the environmental response to the loss of Gullbridge mine waste into the area's water system.

According to federal responses to questions from The Telegram, the provincial government has taken on the work alone - informing Environment Canada of what happened, but not asking for help for any kind of containment attempt.

"In terms of Environment Canada's involvement in this incident, our Environmental Emergencies Branch was notified of the incident. ... However, the department has not been requested to assist in the cleanup or asked for advice to date," stated an email to The Telegram late Wednesday.

Environmental enforcement officers with Environment Canada have been on site. The officials conducted an inspection and took water samples for analysis.

"Any further action will be determined by these results."

Organizations: Environment Canada, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Marine Contractors Environmental Emergencies Branch

Geographic location: South Brook, Newfoundland

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