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Polluted and long given up for dead, a water body on Vancouver Island provides optimism and a model for streams across the province

Surfers rest at the mouth of Jordan River.

Surfers rest at the mouth of Jordan River.

Wendy Cox/The Globe and Mail

It's not often someone gets to witness the rebirth of a salmon stream but fisheries biologist Dave Burt says he is watching a Vancouver Island river slowly come back to life after years of industrial abuse.

Coho and chum salmon vanished from the Jordan River, about 70 kilometres west of Victoria, in 1956 and the last pink salmon were seen spawning there in 1971.

Historically the river had a run of some 10,000 salmon, but Mr. Burt, an independent fisheries consultant who is working with the Pacheedaht First Nation to restore the river, said pollution from a copper mine, reduced water flows caused by BC Hydro dams and the impacts of logging wiped out stocks. The only fish that survived were rainbow trout in some areas.

"Most of the anadromous reach was poisoned," said Mr. Burt, using a term for fish that ascend from the sea to spawn.

Mr. Burt said while trout remained in some parts of the river, he noticed during a survey that there was one stretch that was devoid of life.

"I was taken aback by the fact there was no fish in there whatsoever," he said. "That was really telling … and it was right next to a slag heap."

A copper and gold mine opened in the watershed in 1919 and went through a series of owners before closing in the mid-seventies. Piles of ore were left along one section of the river bank, leaching pollutants into the stream.

The river seemed dead and largely forgotten.

However, in 2008, prompted by studies by Mr. Burt, BC Hydro started to release more water to aid fish. The release increased fish habitat by bringing water back to sections of the river that had run dry and it diluted the pollution below the slag dump.

Paddle boarders at mouth of Jordan River.

Paddle boarders at mouth of Jordan River.

Wendy Cox/The Globe and Mail

"There was a large improvement as a result of that flow release," said Mr. Burt. "It was night and day."

Trout increased in numbers and in size. And salmon began to creep back into the watershed; 25 coho and 15 chums were seen spawning in the river two years ago, after apparently moving into the system from nearby streams.

Mr. Burt said the Pacheedaht are now hoping to accelerate salmon recovery by putting new spawning gravel in stretches of the river.

Ken Farquharson, a public member on BC Hydro's coastal fish and wildlife compensation program, said he took note of Mr. Burt's studies and began to ask why more wasn't being done to restore salmon. He said everyone he talked to told him the chronic pollution problem couldn't be dealt with because the mine had long closed and it wasn't clear who was responsible.

"[BC Hydro] had a meeting to discuss what they might do in the Jordan River area," said Mr. Farquharson. "When it came to discuss what could be done for fish, everyone just shrugged and said, 'The old mine is there and there's too much copper – but what can we do?'"

Mr. Farquharson turned to Calvin Sandborn, legal director of the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria for help.

"I wanted to find out who might be held responsible for the mine pollution," said Mr. Farquharson.

Mr. Sandborn put a law student, Matthew Nefstead, on the case and within a short time he had an answer – although a confusing number of corporate entities had come and gone over the years, the legal responsibility for the site lay with Teck Resources Inc., a company that had a long-standing connection to the mineral claims.

In response to that finding, said Mr. Sandborn, the B.C. Ministry of Environment (MoE) called on Teck to come up with a remediation plan. The government also directed Western Forest Products Inc., which bought a contaminated site near the river mouth for a log sort, to clean up its land.

Log booms at the mouth of Jordan River.

Log booms at the mouth of Jordan River.

Wendy Cox/The Globe and Mail

"The good news is we are on the road to rehabilitating Jordan River and getting salmon back," said Mr. Sandborn. "The bad news is that this once again shows the bad job the B.C. government is doing as far as regulating mining and protecting fisheries."

He praised Teck for shouldering cleanup responsibility for the site, but was critical of the government for not acting decades earlier.

"There was a history that showed contamination of the river by the mine … but there was a lack of curiosity as to whether there was a connection that would establish a legal responsibility on the company to clean up the mine site and restore the fish habitat," said Mr. Sandborn. "The big question that arises is how many other rivers across the province are being damaged in the same way?"

In an e-mail, MoE spokesman David Karn said after concerns about Jordan River were brought to the government, officials had a meeting with Teck, leading to a study which confirmed high copper levels. That triggered the need for a remediation plan.

"The ministry has imposed requirements on both Teck and Western Forest Products to conduct a detailed site investigation, prepare a remediation plan and prepare a schedule for remediation to be submitted to the ministry by June 1, 2017," Mr. Karn stated.

"Teck is now working co-operatively with the current property owner, former property owners and regulators to assess existing environmental conditions and any potential restoration that may be recommended," Chris Stannell, a Teck spokesman, said in an e-mail.

Mr. Burt said with an end to copper pollution, and adequate water flows, salmon stocks should thrive again in Jordan River.

"It takes a long time [to revive a river] but I am optimistic," he said.