Nanaimo is a city that has been built on mining––both figuratively, in the sense that the city expanded largely due to the booming mining industry, and literally, in the sense that the city itself, in many places, sits atop old mine tunnels. These tunnels have posed problems for Nanaimo developers and caused understandable concern for local residents.
As many who live in and around the Harbour City are aware, mining in Nanaimo was a major local industry for nearly 100 years. Many tunnels were created beneath the city’s streets, the majority of which were dug during the peak years of Nanaimo’s mining boom. While these tunnels exist throughout the city, the majority of them lie beneath the Newcastle Island Channel and the area around Victoria Road, downtown, where some of the tunnels are less than one metre below ground.
It is areas such as these that have caused concern––and rightly so. In many of these places, the city has been built over coal seams that mostly slope at 15-degree angles, making the tunnels shallow enough to create depressions in the ground or even to cause sinkholes.
In 2013, for example, a considerable part of Pine Street at Victoria Road was closed off due to a collapsed mining tunnel beneath the street. The road was closed for a number of months while city employees worked to fill the large depression caused by the sunken tunnel. The city has since taken action to mitigate risks associated with these abandoned mine shafts. In 2014, the Nanaimo City Council voted to allot $50,000 towards assessing and alleviating threats. Luckily, the City of Nanaimo has maps that chart most, if not all, of the tunnels, which allows city workers to more easily identify areas of potential hazard.
While mining has, of course, been a key industry in many other parts of the country, there are few communities with this kind of problem, some exceptions being in Alberta in Nova Scotia. Halifax, in particular, has been adept at dealing with under-city mining tunnels, and Nanaimo has looked to successful solutions put forward by cities such as Halifax to address its own concerns.
But in addition to being a cause for concern in the city, these mines have more recently been given a new life in the sustainable energy movement, an interesting and perhaps fitting change from the polluting purposes for which they had previously been created. Earlier this year, one mine beneath the Nanaimo campus of Vancouver Island University (VIU) was converted into a heat resource for the campus. In this process, salt water from the flooded mine shafts is pumped to the surface in order to produce geo-exchange heat. The project has attracted attention from around the globe. Replacing the gas and electric heating in several of VIU’s buildings, this project is predicted to pay for itself within 18 years. As a result, the carbon footprint for the heating and cooling systems of these buildings will be reduced to almost zero.