Alexco Resource Corporation now awaits the Yukon Territorial Water Board’s decision to licence its Bellekeno mine, following hearings last week in Mayo. It’s the last hurtle for the company to clear before it begins building its new mill in earnest.
But the company is confident enough operations will proceed that it’s already poured the mill’s concrete foundation. Heavy machinery rumbles around the mine site, to the consternation of Keno residents who oppose the project.
Alexco expects to begin producing silver concentrate later this year. Nobody, even the mine’s critics, expect the project will be halted now.
This all makes Bellekeno a marked contrast to another project that may have met its demise at a water board hearing earlier this year: Western Copper Corporation’s proposed Carmacks mine.
In May, the board refused to license the Carmacks project, deeming the company’s technology to be unproven and too risky to salmon and other critters in the nearby Yukon River.
The company is appealing the decision in the Yukon Supreme Court. It claims the board has overstepped its authority, noting both the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board and government approved the project.
There seems to be little risk of Bellekeno going through a similar ordeal. While Western Copper, to much controversy, proposed separating copper from ore by dousing enormous piles of rock with sulphuric acid, Alexco plans to use the tried-and-true method of building a conventional flotation mill.
There are other big differences between the two projects. Bellekeno is an existing underground mine that closed in 1989. Carmacks would be a new, open-pit operation.
Lewis Rifkind with the Yukon Conservation Society says the environmental risks of open-pit operations are “ten-fold” that of underground projects.
Carmacks faced fierce opposition from the Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation, which, fearing the mine may harm the environment, hired a team of engineers and lawyers to fight the project through water board hearings. Bellekeno, meanwhile, has been embraced by the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyak Dun, which sees the mine as an opportunity to create work for its members.
The project is expected to create 175 jobs during construction, and about 130 jobs during its four years of operation. In June, the company and First Nation signed a comprehensive co-operation and benefits agreement, to ensure First Nation members receive a sizable share of this work.
Bellekeno has its own controversies, but most of them appear beyond the reach of the water board to fix.
Approximately 20 residents currently live in Keno. Over the past two decades since Bellekeno shuttered, they have come to enjoy the peace and quiet of their community. But that’s all now coming to an end. Alexco’s mill will be located within one kilometre of town.
The company has resisted the calls of residents to relocate its mill farther afield. Doing so would cost time and money.
Alexco also feared that if it built a mill 13 kilometres afield at Elsa, as proposed by residents, that they would be on the hook to clean up messes left by previous operators.
The concerns of Keno residents didn’t receive much sympathy from Yukon’s socio-economic assessment board. In its decision, the board wondered why, if noise is such a problem, residents moved to a place surrounded by existing mineral claims and abandoned minesites.
Insa Schultenkotter used to rent cabins to German visitors during the summer. But business is now understandably slow.
Using a sound-level meter, she found the bustle and beeping of nearby heavy equipment registered at 76 decibels from the Keno campsite – as loud as living room music.
She says heavy equipment has roared up and down a bypass road near her property as late as 1:30 a.m. When she complained to Alexco, she says officials faulted contractors for not following the rules against operating machinery late at night.
“They’re always pointing the finger at someone else,” she said.
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