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Vital Partnerships
Collaboration is EPCOR​​'s oxygen​

The development and nurturing of Public Private Partnership (P3) projects are among our many efforts to grow our company, create value for our shareholder, and contribute to environmental sustainability.

​​​​​​​by Curtis Gillespie

Everything on this earth exists in partnership. Philosophy and science remind us of this on a daily basis, and it applies as much, if not more, to the challenges we face as to the joys we share. Which is why EPCOR’s Britannia Mine project is such an important example of how to conduct a partnership at multiple levels, levels far beyond the details of any contract.

Howe Sound is one of the most stunning locations on the planet. Located north of Vancouver, B.C., it leads most of the way to Whistler, terminating in Squamish about 10 kilometres up the road from the old mine site and where the Britannia Mine Museum now operates. On a sunny day, it’s impossible to imagine anything but perfection flowing out of this landscape.

Unfortunately, the decommissioned Britannia Mine was far from perfect. It operated from 1904 to 1974 and at its peak it was the largest copper mine in the British Empire. Nearly 60,000 people lived and worked there, which is hard to imagine today as you drive through the tiny hamlet. When operating and after it closed, the site was poisoning the Sound.​

An ecological concern​

For more than 70 years, the Britannia Mine has been an ecological concern. Every year, hundreds of thousands of kilograms of heavy metals entered British Columbia's Howe Sound through contaminated acid rock drainage that came from the now abandoned copper mine. In the early 2000s, the British Columbia government realized the situation was dire. In 2004, the government issued a Req​uest for Proposals to find a solution.

At that time, EPCOR did not have a significant track record in Public Private Partnership (P3) projects. But it did know how to handle wastewater. And, almost as importantly, how to successfully work with multiple stakeholders. Collaboration is EPCOR’s oxygen. Its proposal was successful, and EPCOR was awarded the contract to build a water treatment facility and oversee operations for a 20-year period.​​​​​​​

EPCOR Senior Manager Vicki Campbell has worked on two successful P3 projects – the Britannia Mine Water Treatment Plant and the Regina Wastewater Treatment Plant upgrade.​​

​​Vicki Campbell is a senior manager for EPCOR and worked on another successful project — to upgrade the Regina wastewater treatment plant. “What we found at Britannia,” says Campbell, “was leachate from a copper mine. Like with any mine, they stockpile tailings and when the rain percolates through the soil, it turns into acid rock drainage. It was a toxic, heavy metal mixture made up of zinc, copper, aluminum, cadmium, iron, and manganese, and it was draining straight into Howe Sound.”

An environmental success

EPCOR created a high-density sludge water treatment facility, which uses slaked lime to gather the dissolved heavy metals in the mine water that allows the solids to settle. The resulting lime-sludge mix is removed and stored off-site. After the water's pH and turbidity levels are tested, it flows downhill into Howe Sound. EPCOR annually treats 4.2 billion litres of drainage and removes an average of 226,000 kilograms of contaminants. That’s a quarter of a million kilograms of toxins that would have otherwise ended up in Howe Sound, every year. The project is nearly 20 years old, meaning nearly five million kilograms of toxins have been kept out of the waters.​

Howe Sound had once been deemed a dead zone, but the whales are back. Not only is the project environmentally successful, it’s also educational; the public can learn about the on-going work to clean up the mine site when they visit the Britannia Mine Museum. The project has won numerous awards, including Government of British Columbia Premier’s Award for Innovation and Excellence 2007, and the Fraser Basin Council Caring for Ecosystems Award 2006.​​

It's the details that mat​ter

Eric Taylor is the EPCOR site manager for the Britannia Mine project. He’s been with EPCOR since 2020, but he was familiar with and working on the site for the prior two decades in other roles. “I’ve been aware of the issue and project since even before the RFP,” says Taylor. “When you consider it was one year to build a high-end complex plant, I think EPCOR hit most of the keynotes.”

It has been a complex project, to be sure, with an added level of scrutiny in being a Public Private Partnership (P3). It’s a project structure not always viewed positively in the public eye, but it’s the details that matter. The logic behind a P3 is simple. Large infrastructure and management projects carry considerable financial risk, and governments often wish to shield citizens (and themselves) from those risks. P3s create a scenario where the private partner EPCOR, in this case, assumes both the risk and the incentive; it will do better financially and reputationally if the project goes well. The public partner — the B.C. government — carries the responsibility of making the best choice to begin with, and then with laying out stringent performance standards and the reporting mechanisms that best combine operational flexibility and diligent oversight, while reducing financial uncertainty for the taxpayer.​

“The benefits of a P3 seem fairly clear,” adds Campbell. “If it’s a company with demonstrated integrity, a good plan, and they’re financially motivated, the risk is transferred to the company and off the public purse. But not every company is willing to take on that risk because once you sign, there’s no going back. It takes a lot of skill to put these together.”​

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Leading through sound governance​

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And trust. EPCOR’s relationship with the B.C. government is strong, says Taylor. And while there may be a high level of confidence, it’s underpinned by robust reporting and communications. “We provide them with monthly operating reports,” says Taylor. “And we have weekly touch-base calls with the various stakeholders and month​ly check-in calls with the province’s Crown Contaminated Sites Program.”​​

A Public Private Partnership for the Planet​

The fact that P3s are competitive is why it’s essential to develop strong partnerships, a bit like climbers moving together up a rock face, where success is measured with each step and there is so much at stake. Trust and reliability are everything. The consequences of failure are stark enough with Britannia Mine that you could almost describe it as a P4 project — a Public Private Planet Partnership. There was a lot on the line for EPCOR and for the B.C. government, but it was life and death for Howe Sound and the living creatures and organisms being decimated by decades of ongoing toxic releases. The planet needed this project to work. And it has.

The success of the Britannia Mine project demonstrates many things. Most importantly, it shows that EPCOR has the expertise to turn around environmental calamities, but it also tells us that the P3 model can work when partnerships are strong enough to benefit every partner. In Howe Sound, that means not just the human partners, but the entire ecosystem. If there has ever been a project that demonstrates why partnerships must happen and just how intricately connected and inter-reliant we are, it is the Britannia​ Mine "P​​4."​

The Regina Wastewater Treatment Plant was built under a Public Private Partnership (P3) between EPCOR and the City of Regina. Learn more about this project by reading Upping the Creek.​​

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