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Crying poor, spending millions

Say the word Yukon, and what springs to mind? For many, this vast, sparsely populated territory in Canada's northwest corner is the very symbol of pristine isolation, one of the last great wild places. Our roads are few, long, and often rough, and lead to

Say the word Yukon, and what springs to mind?

For many, this vast, sparsely populated territory in Canada’s northwest corner is the very symbol of pristine isolation, one of the last great wild places. Our roads are few, long, and often rough, and lead to communities that are tiny and isolated, and nestled in the beauty of nature.

Keno City is one such community. Once a boomtown surrounded by active mines, for the past two decades it has been home to a handful of hardy souls, struggling to make a living on small-scale mining, tourism, and the arts. A couple of years ago, most people in Keno were delighted to hear that Vancouver-based Alexco Mining was revisiting the old United Keno Hill silver deposits.

Support for Alexco’s plans began to weaken as residents learned the details: a pile of waste rock on the mountain above town where metal contaminants threaten the water supply, the creation of a new potentially toxic tailings pile, and perhaps worst of all, the establishment of a new mill right on the edge of the currently peaceful village.

Alexco prides itself on being “the new face of mining,” and has presented plans to mitigate the impact on Keno, but residents are skeptical about their value. This Tuesday, about half the town - around a dozen people - met with a representative of Alexco in Keno’s only café, to get the company’s reaction to their objections. The short answer was that the company will do what it can, but sees no alternative to proceeding with the mill, and the waste-rock pile, at the disputed locations.

The next step is for Alexco to submit its plans to the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Advisory Board, whose mandate is to “provide a comprehensive, neutrally conducted assessment process” and at the same time to “protect and maintain environmental quality and heritage resources”.

In theory at least, both Keno City residents and Alexco can expect fair and neutral treatment from the advisory board. But anyone who read last Friday’s News must surely doubt the process. As the name implies, the board’s powers are advisory, and the final decision lies with the Yukon government. Last week, cabinet rejected the board’s advice that the Yukon stop burning garbage in open pits.

It may come as a surprise, for those who don’t live in the Yukon, that in most of our supposedly pristine communities we recycle our garbage into the air in the form of toxic waste. According to the advisory board’s report, the health effects of this practice range from “respiratory irritation, headaches and cough” to “asthma, cancer, and advanced mortality.”

The board listened to residents sickened by dump smoke, to Environment Canada, and to its own researchers, and recommended that the government stop burning garbage “immediately.” The territorial government’s response? Too expensive to fix. It will take a minimum of three years to address the issue.

Now, these are tight times around the world, and a lot of governments are cutting spending. It’s not hard to imagine that a remote Canadian territory might find it difficult to afford to update a solid-waste system that’s already been ignored for years.

In fact, the Yukon government is still well-supported by the Canadian taxpayer, and is poised to introduce its biggest budget ever, reported to be close to a billion dollars. When you consider that we number some 30,000 souls, or about enough to fill a small southern town, it sounds like quite a lot.

But governments have spending priorities, and perhaps the Yukon has more important things to do with its millions. It is set, for instance, to spend $2.6 million on the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. The money will be used to promote the Yukon as a tourist destination. According to Premier Dennis Fentie, it’s “an opportunity we cannot afford to miss.”

If I were a citizen of Keno City I would be deeply concerned about the prospects for a fair settlement of the dispute with Alexco. When it comes to development in the territory, Fentie’s word is law. He’s rigidly pro-development, and as the dump decision shows, won’t hesitate to override the advisory board if it goes against his wishes.

Fentie clearly doesn’t give a damn about quality-of-Slife issues in small Yukon communities, nor does he lose sleep over environmental concerns, no matter how serious the demonstrated threat to human health. If this government can ignore the health and well-being of the people of Carcoss, Old Crow, Lake Laberge, Ross River, Haines Junction, and almost every other Yukon community, what hope do the 23 citizens of Keno have?

Keno has vowed to take its fight to the advisory board, and to the public. That’s a good thing. It’s a safe bet that if the board’s decision were to go against Alexco, Fentie would ignore that advice. By taking their fight to the media, the Keno folk can keep reminding us all that millions spent on tourism infrastructure in the communities, and millions more spent promoting the Yukon as a destination, will go to waste if those communities become industrial sites and toxic wastelands.

The Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Advisory Board is only an advisory body, but Fentie would do well to note that, if his cowboy economics fail to find favour with the Yukon public, he must eventually face a tribunal with the power to effect change. It’s called a territorial election.

Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.