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Irrepressible Howe Sound

An enigmatic fjord swirling with the after-effects of industrial activity and shining with remarkable comebacks of nature

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Legacy of environmental abuse

Part of Britannia's historical legacy has been the large amounts of toxic effluent it has deposited into the sound, says Jeff Gau of the Future of Howe Sound Society (FHSS).

"[Howe Sound] has a sad history of industrial mismanagement and abuse and over the past 20 years, it has been the subject of millions of dollars in reclamation projects to restore its health. The decommissioned copper mine at Britannia Beach discharged considerable toxic effluent including copper, cadmium, iron and zinc into Howe Sound between 1905 and 2001. At one point, the area around the mine was described as the 'worst point-source mineral contamination in North America,' and had a devastating effect on local fish populations."

He notes that a recent Crown report has shown that the cost of the Britannia Beach cleanup alone has already reached $46 million and may well reach $200 million, paid for by B.C. taxpayers.

And according to Buchanan, the situation at Woodfibre was no better.

"The Woodfibre site was always a polluter," he says, "It produced a lot of dioxins over the years. It was just incredibly toxic."

When Woodfibre went out of business in 2006, the province took charge of clean-up efforts of the polluted site — an ongoing process that includes the construction of a water treatment plant built to process leachate seeping from the old dumpsite.

Secrets of the depths

Buchanan has always been captivated by the mysteries of Howe Sound — a fascination, which led him to conduct research and locate a book containing the observations of a manned submersible, the Pisces IV, on numerous dives in Howe Sound during the 1970s and '80s.

One of their most remarkable findings was the sighting of glass sponges.

Glass sponge reefs were common when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. In the late Jurassic period, a massive sponge reef stretched across a prehistoric sea where Europe is today. But ocean conditions changed. Glass sponges survived, dotting the world's oceans as individuals. But their reefs were thought extinct 30 million years ago — until an astonishing discovery in the late 1980s in B.C. waters.

"It was fascinating to know that, in our own backyard, we have these rare glass sponges," Buchanan said.

The world's oldest multi-cell organisms, glass sponges produce a skeleton made from silica (glass) extracted from sea water and generally exist in deep, cold parts of the Pacific and the southern ocean bordering Antarctica. The continental shelf off of the B.C. coast provides the unique environment that allows them to form vast reefs in water only 150 to 200 metres deep.