It might be splattered with mud on the outside, but the pickup that Brad Thrall drives still has that new-car smell on the inside.
The truck and the road it is driving on and the mine that it leads to are all new – sort of.
Alexco Resources opened the Bellekeno Mine a little more than a year ago, but mining in the hills surrounding Keno City has occurred for almost a century. And the landscape has the scars to prove it.
To illustrate that point, Thrall, who helped found Alexco and acts as its chief operating officer, points out a large placer operation in the valley as he navigates the truck up the side of the mountain.
It’s hard to see, but historic mines dot the hills in and around Keno City.
Even Bellekeno is an old mine site, although the adit that Alexco has driven is new. And while their operation mines the same body of silver, lead and zinc, it doesn’t connect to the historic mine.
But Alexco isn’t just exploiting old sites. It’s also cleaning up the mess left by a century of haphazard environmental policy.
“A lot of people I think don’t appreciate that we put up $10 million to reclaim these historic liabilities as part of our purchase of these assets,” said Thrall.
That money is held in trust by the federal government and is earmarked for cleaning up the district. And there is a lot to clean up.
For decades the tailings from all the mines in the area were simply dumped into a valley just outside of town.
There are about 4.5 million tonnes of tailings down there.
Alexco Environmental Group, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the mining company, is under contract with the federal government to do the reclamation work.
“Alexco has a unique business model,” said Thrall. “We identify that there’s properties like Keno Hill that have environmental liabilities, environmental impairment and challenges, but at the same time they still have a lot of upside in terms of resources.
“We’re able to bridge those gaps between those two because we have environmental expertise but at the same time we’re mine operators.”
The company is currently working on a district-wide closure plan for all the contamination, something that Thrall hopes to have done by the end of the year.
Cleaning everything up will likely take longer, about five years, said Thrall. And the ground water will have to be monitored for several decades after. But Thrall said he hopes to be mining the district the entire time.
“I hope we’re here for 20 or 30 years,” he said.
And that has raised the ire of many local residents of Keno City.
Alexco owns the entire district, including the abandoned industrial town of Elsa just a few kilometres outside of Keno City. Historically that’s where all the heavy industrial activity, rock crushing and milling of ore took place.
When Alexco proposed reopening Bellekeno, residents wanted the mill built in Elsa. Instead, Alexco ended up putting it less than a kilometre outside of Keno, drawing anger from many of the tiny town’s residents.
Alexco is now looking to open two more mines to feed that mill, something that has locals crying fowl.
They’re worried that the noise will scare away tourists and that the nearby dry-stack tailings pose a health risk.
While the tailings are close to town, dust monitors around the site show there hasn’t been any contamination, said Thrall.
“We have employees that work here continuously. We’re not going to expose employees to some hazardous condition,” he said. “The data certainly shows on the noise and the dust monitoring everything is operating as predicted and what was assessed.”
As far as tourism goes, Thrall said he believes that both industries can coexist.
At some point, Thrall envisions partnering with the mining museum and offering tours through the historic parts of Elsa.
“I grew up in a mining town,” he said. “There was an open pit right in the middle of town.
“It doesn’t have to be an either/or situation. There may be differences of opinion on that, but I believe that mining, tourism and other types of activities can all exist. They can enhance each other too.”
Mining’s mixed blessing
Business is booming in Keno City.
But it’s not just the mining that’s responsible for it.
Two new businesses have opened recently, and there is a third on the way.
Mike Mancini isn’t worried about the increased competition.
The owner of the Keno Snack Bar has been the in business since 1995.
His pizza, which is based on his mother’s recipe, has been a staple in Keno for even longer.
Born in Southern Italy, Mancini came to the territory as a toddler.
He grew up just outside of Keno, in the industrial town of Elsa, where his father worked in mining.
Thanks to his mother’s cooking, he was popular kid growing up.
“Whenever she’d bake bread or any of the goodies, there would be a lineup at the door,” he said.
When his mother started making pizzas for the local hockey players, to go along with their post-game beers, it quickly became a tradition.
“They’d buy all of the ingredients and she would make them up a bunch of pizzas,” said Mancini.
It’s a tradition that he’s kept up – although he buys all the ingredients himself now.
Though he’s been running the snack bar for over a decade, it’s only in the last few years that things have started to take off.
But Mancini has lived through Yukon booms and busts before.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t know if we’ll keep seeing the constant boom.
“Already the word is out that this year a lot of the junior mining companies aren’t getting their financing. There are new businesses in town here, so if things continue the way they did in the last few years I think we should all do OK, but if a downturn is, in fact, happening, it’s going to be a tough go.”
Jim Milley thinks it will be tough.
The co-owner of the Sourdough Cafe, Milley worries that with mining activity so close to town, Keno City and his business are doomed.
Milley and his cousin Jordan Theriault opened the bar in December; they are already thinking of selling.
“What I was expecting when we heard (Alexco Resources) was coming was, ‘Finally they’re going to clean up this mess that Falconbridge left behind,’” he said. “We were looking at this being really a major benefit to the community, but nobody in their wildest imagination thought we’d end up being turned into a new Elsa.”
Elsa was the industrial town where mining ore was processed.
The new mill and it’s dry stack tailing pile are less than a kilometre form Keno, and that has Milley worried about the future of the town and his business.
“Alexco is saying (dry stack tailings) are a perfectly safe technology, yet it’s never been done in a residential community before,” he said. “That is an immediate fact that should have been brought front and centre when they brought their application forward.”
Milley and Theriault put a lot of work into their bar. It’s actually a restored roadhouse that dates back to the early 1900s.
The floorboards are all original wood that Theriault ripped out of the ceiling, and the bar itself is made of reclaimed wood from an old mining camp.
The roadhouse has a long and storied history, said Theriault. “It’s actually where Bombay Peggy got her start before she went to Dawson,” he said.
They originally had plans to expand, but with Alexco’s application to open two new mines in the area currently before assessors, they’ve put that scheme on hold.
“Nobody wants to stop the mines up there, nobody,” said Milley. “But nobody thinks we should sacrifice our community for their bottom line.”
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