Bellekeno gets green light

Quiet Keno City is about to become a much noisier place, it appears.

Quiet Keno City is about to become a much noisier place, it appears.

Friday, the Yukon Environmental and Socio-Economic Assessment Board approved Alexco Resource Corporation’s plans to reactivate the Bellekeno underground silver mine.

Ore from the mine would be milled at a complex to be built just one kilometre from the centre of town.

The Yukon government still needs to approve the board’s recommendations. But it seems unlikely the staunchly pro-mining territorial government would block the mine’s development.

It appears Alexco has just cleared its biggest hurdle.

The company hopes to start construction this summer. The mine is only expected to operate for five years, but Alexco expects to operate in the area for decades to come, thanks to a contract it has secured from the federal government to clean up abandoned mine sites in the surrounding area.

And the company also continues to explore for minerals worth mining at surrounding sites.

Bellekeno should create about 175 jobs during construction, and about 130 jobs during operation.

But the project has been met with vocal opposition by a group of Keno City residents, who have expressed a wide range of concerns, from fears that tailings dust will blow into town to worries the community’s water supply may become polluted.

Regulators concluded these fears are unwarranted, provided that a long list of precautions are taken.

Acidic rock will be buried back underground so it won’t release metals into nearby waters. Water-quality tests will be regularly conducted.

Mine traffic will be diverted around town. And ore trucks will be covered and frequently washed to prevent the spreading of dust.

Tailings will be doused with water to prevent the spread of dust and largely kept covered.

But one thing is certain: the mine will make Keno a far less peaceful place.

The din caused by construction and milling will register at the closest corner of town at around 60 decibels, which is the equivalent to overhearing a conversation from one metre away.

From Keno’s eastern-most private property, farthest from the mine, the noise is expected to reach 50 decibels, equivalent to the hum of a quiet office.

Noise from the mine can be expected to cause “minor health effects … such as annoyance, anxiety and sleep disruption,” say regulators.

But noise levels are expected to fall well below 90 decibels, which is the level at which prolonged exposure can cause gradual hearing loss.

The noisiest operations of hauling and milling ore will be restricted between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.

That’s little comfort to Insa Schultenkotter, who rents two cabins to tourists each summer. She worries the racket from the mine means she will have to close shop.

“They like it because it’s quiet, because of the wilderness,” she said.

She leads a group representing about 18 residents—which would make up most of Keno’s population—who oppose having a mill so close to town. They’d prefer to see mining equipment operate at the old Elsa minesite, about 13 kilometres from town.

That won’t work, say Alexco officials. They fear taking on the liabilities of historic contamination at the Elsa site, and the cost of hauling material the additional distance would eat into their profits.

Not everyone opposes the project in town. Five Keno residents signed a petition supporting the project.

But most of the petition names, which total about 50, are those of Mayo residents. Mayo’s town council also supports the mine.

Facing ongoing criticism, the company has moved the location of its mill from Christal Lake to the old Flame and Moth sites, behind a hill to the west of town.

But Schultenkotter insists the new location is no better, because it remains so close to town.

But if noise is such a problem, residents should have thought twice before moving to a place surrounded by existing mineral claims and abandoned minesites, say regulators.

“Mining plays a very important role in the history of Keno and in many ways it is also the reason it even exists today,” the decision document states.

Silver, lead and zinc have been mined at the surrounding Keno Hill area since the early 1890s. The camp was once Canada’s second-largest producer of silver. From 1914 to 1918, there was near-continuous mining at the property.

Mining halted 20 years ago, in 1989.

So Keno may have always been a quiet place in the minds of residents such as Schultenkotter, who moved to town 11 years ago, but it often wasn’t that way.

And, far from being pristine wilderness, the area surrounding Keno City is considered to be a contaminated minesite by the federal government. Water bearing high levels of zinc and other metals flows from abandoned mine adits.

In the outlying 400 square kilometres, there are 42 minesites.

“The debate about whether mining should occur in close proximity to the commercial and residential areas of Keno was decided a long time ago by whatever government agency of the day granted those rights,” regulators wrote.

“Further, those who over time have decided to make Keno their home most likely were aware of the history of this area.

“More importantly, it would be difficult to believe that they were not aware of the prevalence of claims close to town and in the surrounding hills.

“Since the purpose of mining is ultimately to produce metals, the potential for these claims to be used for mining activity is certain to the extent practicable as long as the subsurface rights remain.”

If the mine proves to be too noisy, its operators could always be charged under the territory’s Health and Safety Act, regulators say.

These statements are “patronizing,” said Schultenkotter.

“We’re not against mining. We’re against the location.”

The fact regulators approved the project shows they’re shills for industry, she said.

“This is a farce and everyone knows it,” she said.

The decision may only affect 20-odd Keno residents for now. But a similar decision could disrupt life in any other small Yukon community in the future, she said.

“It could happen to anyone in rural Yukon.”

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