Frontier mentality cemented in Whitehorse

Welcome to Whitehorse — the wilderness city with big-city pollution. That should be the capital’s amended slogan if it approves a new…

Welcome to Whitehorse — the wilderness city with big-city pollution.

That should be the capital’s amended slogan if it approves a new cement batch plant on McLean Lake.

Arriving three years ago, I didn’t know what to expect in Whitehorse.

The place was a bit of a mystery.

I’d heard about the city’s music scene, the mountains and the Yukon River that flowed through town. Little more.

And so, after days on the Alaska Highway, I made a right-hand turn onto Robert Service Drive.

I saw the mountains.

I glimpsed the river.

And then I drove through a stinky white cloud.

That was unexpected.

‘Smog?’ I thought, bewildered.

Then the Skookum Asphalt sign came into view.

At the time, placing an asphalt plant at the gateway to the city seemed a little odd.

In fact, it still does.

And the city seems intent on compounding past mistakes.

Full disclosure: I live in the McLean Lake area.

I have a cabin on Squatter’s Row, just south of McLean Lake Road.

It’s perfect, like living in the country — lots of trees, frogs, northern lights and moose tracks — and it’s only a five-minute drive downtown. A 10-minute bike (downhill).

On return bike trips, the Robert Service hill is daunting.

Sure, it’s a long climb. But it’s the carcinogenic stench of heavy industry that’s the hill’s biggest hurdle.

I still bike, but have to gird myself when I see that cloud of smoke floating toward the city.

The wind seldom blows towards Squatter’s Row. But when it does, that smell creeps under the door.

Skookum Asphalt could be chalked up to a mistake, made years ago in a frontier city before officials knew much about public health, environmental responsibility and tourism.

Not so.

Today, council is following the wrongheaded path of its predecessors.

Despite an official community plan, zoning regulations and broad public objection, the council is, once again, leaning towards approving heavy industrial development just a few minutes from the downtown core.

This time, it’s Territorial Contracting Ltd.’s concrete batch plant.

If approved, the plant will be built beside McLean Lake, a watershed that feeds the city’s drinking supply.

Having such wilderness so close to town is a treasure.

Often, families swim in the lake, the kids splashing around in those blow-up dinghies.

Those who visit the lake can see moose, coyote, rabbit and lynx tracks in the snow. The lucky ones glimpse the animals themselves.

But that natural bounty is endangered by gravel trucks similar to the ones that roar up and down McLean Lake Road all summer (servicing the quarries near the Copper Haul Road).

Soon, those trucks could rumble around the perimeter of the lake.

Sure, there will be a buffer of trees left standing, but that’s hardly enough to protect the existing habitat.

During the last public meeting, concern did not just stem from the residents who are being directly affected by the development.

It drew people from Granger, Lobird, Copper Ridge and downtown.

Residents are worried about the crystalline silica found in concrete dust, which is designated a Level 1 carcinogen by the Agency for Research on Cancer.

Some wonder why a batch plant is being proposed beside a watershed that feeds the city.

Others worry that, like Ear Lake — the plant’s current home — McLean Lake might begin to dry up once the operation starts sucking vast amounts of water to feed concrete production.

The city is proposing the area be rezoned permanent heavy industrial, which contravenes the city’s official community plan.

Existing quarries in the area are designated interim-use only.

But once Territorial Contracting is granted title to land, it would be hard to deny others the same consideration.

At the last consultation, nobody, not even those who use the McLean Lake creek as their water source, opposed the development of a batch plant flat-out.

But they challenged its location.

There’s an alternative gravel source less than two kilometres away.

If built there, the plant would not be within 300 metres of existing residential houses, as in the current proposal.

This alternative site is on the Copper Haul Road, near other quarries.

But council worried about the cost of trucking gravel an extra two kilometres.

And that is a worry.

A business operating on a razor-thin profit margin that prevents it from trucking its product an extra two kilometres has pretty big problems.

Can it afford to do business in an environmentally sound manner?

And does Whitehorse want to trust such a business to develop a heavy industrial plant on McLean Lake, which feeds the city’s water supply?

There are still plenty of questions and concerns surrounding this development.

Council holds its final public meeting on the matter on Monday at 7:30. (GK)

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