Contaminated groundwater concerns Keno City residents

Dangerous amounts of cadmium and zinc have been detected in the groundwater near Keno City. But the community's drinking well is safe, according to tests conducted in November.

Dangerous amounts of cadmium and zinc have been detected in the groundwater near Keno City.

But the community’s drinking well is safe, according to tests conducted in November. The territorial government plans to conduct monthly tests to monitor the situation.

“It’s basically a different groundwater system where the high levels of contamination are found,” said Brendan Hanley, the Yukon’s medical officer of health. “So there’s certainly no immediate threat and there’s no indication there’s a future threat to the public supply.”

The presence of these chemicals is “no big surprise,” said Hanley, given the close proximity of the monitoring well to the historic Onek mine, which is known to be discharging water high in contaminants.

Residents may want to rethink using surface water for such things as summer gardening, said Hanley.

“I think most residents are keenly aware of where they are. They’re living in a contaminated site,” he said. “That’s why no one has been drinking from the private wells. But I’m not sure whether residents have used various water sources for other purposes.”

Tests conducted since the autumn have found one monitoring well, located 70 metres from Onek, which contains water with 1,200 micrograms per litre of cadmium. That’s 240 times the federal government’s safe threshold for drinking water.

The same well also contained 70,000 micrograms per litre of zinc. That’s 14 times the government’s recommended limit.

“Definitely, the one of greater concern is cadmium,” said Hanley. “Zinc is not nearly so big a deal. It’s known to cause anemia and it can interfere with your cholesterol. But it’s not a carcinogen.”

Cadmium is “quite toxic to the kidneys,” said Hanley. “And a secondary effect is bone density. It can cause osteoporosis.”

And inhaling cadmium harms the lungs. It’s found in, among other things, cigarettes.

Both cadmium and zinc are naturally occurring in the rock surrounding Keno City, along with precious silver.

Health Minister Doug Graham, who declined an interview with the News, told the CBC on Wednesday the contamination “is a naturally occurring thing” and suggested residents shouldn’t be concerned.

That’s little comfort to Keno City resident Bob Wagner, who’d like to see the territorial government playing a more active role in monitoring contamination in the area.

“I’d like to see someone from our government come and say to our faces: ‘It’s a naturally occurring thing and don’t worry about it,’” he said.

Wagner estimates the contaminated monitoring well is within 100 metres of a home.

Other than regular monitoring of the community water supply, the Health department has also offered to pay for testing of private wells and has sent information sheets to residents on the contamination.

But the lead in investigating the contamination is being taken by an offshoot of Alexco Resource Corp.

The company, which bought the abandoned Keno Hill mining complex in 2006, is in charge of cleaning up the historic mess left by previous operators.

It also runs Bellekeno, an underground silver mine that reopened in 2010. And Alexco is exploring other sites to exploit, including Onek.

Access Consulting Group drilled four monitoring wells in the spring of 2011. Samples were taken three times in the autumn. The results came back in late December.

The remaining three water wells had “low level effects that were around drinking water standards,” said Jim Harrington, president of Alexco Environmental Group. All wells are downhill from the water supply.

More monitoring is planned this year, said Harrington. And a soil study is ongoing.

That ought to either confirm or ease Wagner’s fears that dangerous chemicals may have seeped into the community’s soil – a concern that Hanley calls “an important point.”

Wagner and others learned details of the contamination by attending a meeting held in Whitehorse on Monday via teleconference. A meeting set for Keno City the following day was postponed due to the territory’s cold snap.

Wagner opposed the construction of Alexco’s new mill on the outskirts of Keno City. He remains concerned the territorial government isn’t listening to the approximately 25 residents who remain in the community.

“We’re not considered a stakeholder,” he said. “I’d like them to recognize that there are people living here.”

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