Keno City residents confront Alexco at YESAB meeting

Keno City Alexco Resources' plans to expand its mining operations in the Keno City area are facing fierce opposition from some residents of the small community in central Yukon.

KENO CITY

Alexco Resources’ plans to expand its mining operations in the Keno City area are facing fierce opposition from some residents of the small community in central Yukon.

The junior mining company is looking to develop two new mines to feed the mill it operates on the edge of town.

“The fact is that we’re surrounded by what I can only describe as a hostile action by a company hell-bent on bottom-line profits,” said Jim Milley.

He co-owns the Sourdough Cafe and Tavern where a public meeting on the project was held by the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board on Wednesday.

Of the 30 people who attended, about half were from Alexco and the Yukon government.

The community has been on edge ever since Alexco opened its Bellekeno Mine about 16 months ago.

The mill and rock crusher that processes the ore sits only about a kilometre from the centre of the community.

Although the mill can’t really be heard in town, the rock crusher and the trucks that feed it are another story.

“I lost my business and investment that was based on quiet,” said tourism operator Insa Schultenkotter, who along with her partner, Bob Wagner, have decided to sell their properties in Keno and relocate.

They said they wouldn’t be leaving if it weren’t for the mining operations.

“Who in this room wants to live next to a howling and throbbing noise when you’re used to quiet?” asked Schultenkotter.

But the noise isn’t the only thing that has people worried.

While tons of silver, lead and zinc concentrate leave the Keno mill by truck every day, there are also tons of toxic tailings that are left behind.

The tailings are dried and piled up on the site in a process called dry stacking.

Milley said this has never been done so close to a community before.

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“Why are we the guinea pigs and why wasn’t anybody told about it?” he asked.

But Alexco maintains the tailings pile is safe.

“Actually, the technology should be superior as far as dust control and technical stability versus conventional methods,” said Steven Fudge, the company’s vice-president of development and engineering.

“We believe that the dust monitoring that we’re doing right now, and that is being proposed, is going to reinforce that.”

Alexco also does regular industrial hygiene studies on the employees who work with the waste, he added.

The Yukon’s medical officer of health, Dr. Brendan Hanley, has commissioned a study of the potential health impacts of mining in the area.

However, it won’t be finished until the summer, which will likely be after YESAB completes its recommendations.

That doesn’t mean that the study won’t have an impact. There is a clause in the Quartz Mining Act that would allow the department of Energy Mines and Resources to make for amendments to Alexco’s licence even after the YESAB process is complete.

Right now, Alexco isn’t asking for approval to store any more tailings on the site. The company also has plans to start covering up and remediating the waste pile this summer.

Mine tailings are nothing new to the region.

Keno City has been surrounded by mining activities for almost a century. Only a few kilometres from the community there is a tailings pond that contains more than four million tonnes of waste.

Alexco also owns the reclamation company that is contracted by the federal government to clean up that site, along with the rest of the district.

The project that will take years to complete.

In the meantime, the company continues to explore the region and has hopes of further expanding its mining activities around Keno City.

“We’re in for the long term,” said Brad Thrall, Alexco’s chief operations officer. “We hope to be here for 30 years.”

But that’s another source of anxiety for some residents.

Currently, the permit that allows Alexco to operate the mill is only good for another three years.

Its two new mines, Lucky Queen and Onek, are not expected to add any more volume to the mill’s production. However, the company projects that the Lucky Queen site could supply ore to the mill for another 10 years. That has residents worried that the mill could be in operation much longer than the five years that were originally approved.

“If it was a matter of a five-year plan, this amendment wouldn’t concern us at all because we’d be looking at trying to regain the tourist-oriented town we’re trying to build in five years,” said Jordan Theriault, who co-owns the Sourdough Cafe and Tavern with Milley.

“What we’re looking at in reality is whether or not this mill is going to be here on the doorstep, literally, for 10 or 20 or 25 years.

“We all know better. It’s not going to be a five-year project and this is why there is a major issue. We won’t be here in five years because we know (Alexco’s) going to be.”

But it doesn’t have to be a zero- sum game, said Thrall.

“I really believe that both mining and tourism can exist in Keno,” he said.

And Alexco is trying to minimize the impact it has on the community, he added.

While the company did close off the public road to Christal Lake earlier this year, it’s also building a trail to provide the public with an alternate route to the lake, he said.

“We’re trying to do some of those mitigation measures,” he said. “I’m not saying that we’re a perfect company, but we’re trying to do a good job.”

Not everyone is convinced that things are going to work out. Many who spoke out at the meeting seemed frustrated with the YESAB process.

“In my opinion, YESAB does an excellent job on about 99 per cent of its assessments,” said Wagner.

“But when you’re dealing with people that are directly affected – it’s not happening in the middle of nowhere, it’s right in your face – and there are important decisions being made, that have no input from the people that are going to have to live with these decisions, something has to change with the process to include the people that are directly affected.”

Contact Josh Kerr at

joshk@yukon-news.com