Mine makeover

Mine makeover

University of British Columbia researchers aim to transform mining into a sustainable and environmentally conscious industry
November 1, 2005
Let’s face it. Mines in Canada have a bad reputation. They’re seen as dark, dangerous eyesores that wreak havoc on the earth. Truth be known though, the mining industry is one of Canada’s economic backbones, so it’s not going away anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean mines can’t be safer for both people and the earth.

The Centre for Environmental Research in Minerals, Metals and Materials (better known as CERM3) at University of British Columbia (UBC), is a cross-disciplinary research centre dedicated precisely to conquering the issues plaguing new and existing mine sites. It does this by developing innovative, environmentally conscious and sustainable mining methods, technologies, and skilled personnel. “We are leading the way in spreading the concept of sustainable mining,” affirms UBC Professor of Mineral Processing and CERM3 Director, Dr John Meech. By demonstrating sustainable ways of mining, CERM3 intends to influence both the industry itself and the public at large to view mining in a ‘green’ and positive light.

The Canadian mining industry faces critical challenges in managing environmental problems caused by the storage of solid waste and the discharge of metal-bearing effluents (pollutant liquid material released into the environment). CERM3 meets these challenges through research within its five interlinked laboratories that each focus on specific mining issues. The membership of CERM3 includes over 25 faculty members from over 10 different departments at UBC, and their “research runs the gamut from fundamental scientific studies such as the chemistry of minerals, to applied projects such as plugging derelict mine site openings and underground robotic applications,” says Meech.

This research is important for a number of reasons. First, it’s directed at reversing or eliminating pollution and other environmental problems in the mining industry. It helps to educate members of the mining community about ways to protect the environment and develop sustainable solutions to problems caused by mining activities. It addresses the negative misperceptions that many people in society have about mining. And finally, it can lead to new innovations to make the industry sustainable in the 21st century. “As society demands more attention be paid to the environment, we have to address sustainability issues,” he says.

Nearly 30 CERM3 projects are generating both local and worldwide impact. The Global Mercury Project, for example, involves leading the world effort to tackle mercury poisoning in gold miners, while another project looks at understanding mine waste dumps in Peru. The province of B.C. is particularly involved in CERM3’s energy projects such as geothermal energy production and energy recovery from mine effluents.

CERM3’s Millennium Plug project in particular demonstrates a local initiative to create a sustainable community from an abandoned mine site. The typical method of closing mines is to place a concrete plug within a tunnel to prevent effluent from being released to the environment, and prevent curious individuals from entering into the dangerous conditions of a mine. However, these concrete plugs tend to degrade over time because of acidic waters or seismic vibrations. This method is expensive to produce and maintain, as it requires long-term monitoring. With such a plug in place, renewal of the area isn’t viable.

CERM3 has come up with a way to seal mines that can reduce the cost of mine closure and ensure a longer-lasting solution. They created a research station to test the Millennium Plug at the derelict Britannia Mine site near Howe Sound in B.C., a popular site for sailing, diving, camping and other recreational activities

Built in much the same way as an earth dam, the Millennium Plug has an impermeable clay core with layers of sand, gravel, and cobble—all locally available and cheaper than concrete. Not to mention much more resistant to chemical attack and seismic events.

The mine site emits dangerous acidic effluent that would then flow into Britannia Creek and into the surface waters of Howe Sound. Since the installation of the Millennium Plug, all effluent has been eliminated from the Britannia Creek system and Howe Sound. As well, 15 to 20 percent of the copper contained in the effluent is now separating inside the mine, rather than in the open air and water.


It’s the reality of any mine—they produce hazardous waste, and unfortunately, it’s only recently that this waste has been dealt with in an environmentally friendly fashion, if at all. CERM3 projects have developed new ways to deal with environmental problems that are cheap and quick to apply. Other benefits include reducing energy consumption; reducing waste production, use of raw materials, and environmental pollution; and improving the working conditions for mining employees. In the case of the mercury project, it could improve the environment and health—even save the lives—of the estimated 15 million people in more than 50 countries that are involved in primitive, low-cost gold mining, many of which have little concern about the impact on air, ground, or water quality.

Specifically, CERM3’s research in plugging derelict mines has resulted in real environmental impact for B.C.’s Britannia Beach. The former mine site is now on its way to revitalization, thanks to CERM3’s Millennium Plug.

“The work of CERM3 at Britannia Beach has been a very important part of the effort to clean up this high-profile historic mine site,” says Michael McPhie, President and CEO of the Mining Association of B.C. “In particular, the approach, engineering, and implementation of the Millennium Plug project was the first major step forward for Britannia and provided the necessary momentum for [the revitalization] we see happening today. Further, the technology used at Britannia by CERM3 has broad application for the mining industry within Canada and around the world.”

Kirstin Clausen, Executive Director for the B.C. Museum of Mining, agrees. “CERM3 provided leadership to a community burdened with an unwanted environmental legacy by allowing the community to believe that solutions could and would be implemented. CERM3 introduced a vision that research can and should become a legitimate activity in the anticipated development at Britannia Beach.”

Through the CERM3’s research, not only does the mining industry benefit by saving money and using more permanent solutions (a Millennium Plug can be made to last 1,000 years), but so too does the environment and society at large.


On July 26, 2000, CERM3 came into being through funding from the CFI, the British Columbia Knowledge Development Fund, and the Stewart Blusson UBC Endowment Fund. Annual industrial grants and contracts also provide support funding for ongoing research projects. Corporate partners sit on CERM3’s Technical Advisory Committee and can access CERM3’s laboratories. CERM3 also has a number of ongoing collaborations with various universities and mining groups from around the world.