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Keno health study met with skepticism

Keno City residents face no immediate dangers from metal contaminants detected in the groundwater surrounding the community, according to a government report released on Wednesday.

Keno City residents face no immediate dangers from metal contaminants detected in the groundwater surrounding the community, according to a government report released on Wednesday.

But the report, which concedes that more monitoring needs to be done to rule out possible health hazards, is small comfort to present and former residents.

“It’s a whitewash as expected,” said Insa Schultenkotter.

“They point out that the data they have is inadequate, but then they turn around and say ‘don’t worry everything is fine.’ How can you do that?” she asked.

Frustrated with the Yukon government’s handling of the situation, Schultenkotter and her husband Bob Wagner have moved to Atlin, B.C. but still own property in Keno City.

Several residents who remain in Keno expressed similar feelings, but they asked not to be named, for fear of upsetting Alexco Resources, the company that is extracting silver from the district’s historic complex of mines.

The health impact study compiled and examined data from March through August, 2012. It focused on the health effects from airborne exposure to six metals: arsenic, cadmium, lead, manganese, strontium and zinc, as well as cadmium and zinc in the groundwater.

Health effects of these airborne particles can include cardiovascular damage, asthma, bronchitis, lung damage, cancer and eye irritation. High levels of cadmium and zinc has been linked to gastrointestinal irritation, vomiting and kidney damage.

“All of this is precautionary,” said Dr. Brendan Hanley, the Yukon’s chief medical officer of health, at a press conference on Wednesday.

“Despite the concern and the complexity of heavy mining, there aren’t any signals coming out that there is existing danger or that the water is contaminated or that the amount of dust is hazardous. It’s just that we don’t feel, through the report, that we have enough data points and monitoring evidence to rule out risk.”

Alexco supports the report’s findings and wants to ensure the safety of residents near its mining operations, said Brad Thrall, the company’s executive vice president and chief operating officer.“It is prudent to do some additional monitoring in Keno City. It’s because of our presence and activities that the Onek 400 contamination was first discovered.”

Onek 400 is an abandoned mine shaft full of water close to local residents.

“We certainly have a pretty robust monitoring program in place now,” said Thrall. “It is increasing. We have six dust monitoring stations, noise monitoring stations, very extensive groundwater monitoring on a monthly basis,”

But the company’s critics aren’t buying it.

“I don’t believe it, absolutely not,” said Schultenkotter. “For someone who has a little bit of knowledge and to read this, you just shake your head.”

She and other residents have pointed to what they see as contradictions and flaws in the report based on the scarcity of data in some areas.

“They’re focusing on the water and the air, which lacks a lot of data.” she said.“There’s way more involved, and the report kind of points it out,” Schultenkotter also worries that the data studied for the report may be biased because it was collected by Access Consulting, a subsidiary of Alexco.

But Hanley was adamant that the results of the report, which was prepared by Calgary-based Habitat Health Impact Consulting, are valid.

“This was not done for industry.” said Hanley. “This was done at my request.”

“The lab testing itself was not independent. What they (Keno residents) had asked for was another opinion on the existing lab information from the monitoring,” he said.

Along with increased monitoring, the report recommends identifying a backup emergency water source in case the town’s main source of potable water, the Firehall well, becomes compromised. It also suggests using “commonsense public health interventions” as precautionary measures.

That includes using raised garden beds, not using surface water for gardens, and hand washing after contact with groundwater, said Hanley.

Millie said he took samples from the water plant himself in July and August and sent them to Mining Watch Canada for analysis. The results noted a spike in contaminants, but that more data is needed before conclusions can be drawn.

At Wednesday’s press conference, Hanley reiterated that spikes in contamination levels like the ones from this summer are inconclusive without more data, which is why the report recommends increasing monitoring.

Health impact assessments, such as what’s being done in Keno, are a relatively new tool and this is the first time one has been carried out in the territory, said Hanley.

Hanley also said he’d like to see this type of impact assessment used during the planning of some projects in the future.

“This was a fairly formal, fairly lengthy health impact assessment.“he said. “I don’t think that’s necessary for every project,”

Contact Jesse Winter at