Keno’s open arms close on Alexco

The new face of mining in Keno is ugly, say residents. But it didn't have to be. When the tiny hamlet learned Alexco Resource Corp. was coming to town, "there was an understanding we were going to be good neighbours," sai

The new face of mining in Keno is ugly, say residents.

But it didn’t have to be.

When the tiny hamlet learned Alexco Resource Corp. was coming to town, “there was an understanding we were going to be good neighbours,” said Keno resident and advisory board member Bob Wagner.

“People in this community are not against mining,” he said. “We have more than 100 years of mining history in this area.”

And things started well.

Alexco representative Brad Thrall earned a lot of respect in the community, said Wagner.

“And Alexco presented themselves as a certain kind of company – the new face of mining,” he said.

The Vancouver-based junior mining company championed social conscience, a concern for the environment and the social partnerships required to mine in this day and age, said Wagner.

But, after purchasing the old United Keno Hill silver mine in 2006, the company never once approached the tiny hamlet for any meetings or consultations, he said.

Over the last three years, Alexco carried out an aggressive, advanced exploration program.

And locals initially accepted this increase in noise and activity as a signal of the return of mining to this region, said Wagner.

“From the beginning, Keno City has sought to act as a responsible neighbour to Alexco.”

But this winter, Alexco did the neighbourly equivalent of cranking AC/DC at 3 a.m.

It blasted for a bunch of new hydropoles close to town without any warning.

Residents got jumpy.

There were also rumours Alexco was entering the Yukon Environmental and Socio-Economic Assessment Act process.

So residents requested a meeting with their aloof neighbour.

Alexco obliged and, on January 9th, it met with Kenoites and briefly went over its YESSA proposal.

The company’s Bellekeno Mine proposal involves mining an underground silver ore deposit two kilometres east of Keno.

To do that, Alexco plans to build a full-scale ore-processing mill at Christal Lake, one kilometre west of Keno.

There will also be a crusher at the Christal Lake site.

“The community viewed parts of this proposal as extremely negative,” said Wagner.

So Keno asked for a second meeting, to give residents time to collect their thoughts.

On January 29th, Alexco officials presented Keno with a more complete proposal, and residents voiced their concerns.

The biggest worry, at that time, was the noise from the crusher that would be only one kilometre from town.

But Alexco appeased the Kenoites.

“They suggested moving the crusher away from the mill site and putting it behind a large hill two kilometres from Keno so there would be no major noise issues,” said Wagner.

And when worried residents brought up the issue of mine traffic roaring through town, Alexco had another solution.

The mining company would build a bypass for the ore trucks.

“After that meeting, the initial response was relief,” said Wagner.

“These seemed like good practical solutions.”

Unfortunately, they didn’t pan out.

The community had a final meeting with Alexco on March 10th.

That’s when Kenoites learned the crusher wouldn’t be moved after all.

“They came out with mitigation, then took it all back because it would cost too much,” said Wagner.

The noise of the crusher will negatively affect Keno’s tourism and quality of life, he said.

But residents are even more worried about the creation of new contaminated minesites.

Alexco is proposing tailing sands, instead of tailing ponds.

The idea is to drain 85 per cent of the nasty water off the pollutants and recycle it.

The remaining contaminated sand will be spread over area permafrost.

“They told us they plan to dry-stack the tailings on permafrost with no protective cover,” said Wagner.

“So, if it’s all stored on permafrost, the question is – how do you mitigate climate change?” said advisory board member Sonia Stange.

Alexco plans to store its acid-leaching rock above the town, she added.

“We’re at the head of salmon-bearing rivers; Christal Lake is one of the only wetlands for moose in the area, and we’re concerned about our town’s well.”

All the infrastructure to maintain and support Alexco’s mill already exists 14 kilometres away at Elsa, said Wagner.

At Christal Lake, Alexco would have to build a substation for electricity, he said.

“That’s a major undertaking.”

But a substation already exists at Elsa.

“The camp is located at Elsa; the maintenance garages are located at Elsa; the warehouse is located at Elsa; the offices are located in Elsa; the transportation garages are located in Elsa – everything you need to support a mill is in Elsa,” he said.

But Alexco is steering clear of the old minesite.

It’s a liability issue, said Wagner.

Alexco is afraid of the old tailings.

Currently, Ottawa is responsible for cleaning up after United Keno Hill mine, at a cost of $70 million.

And Alexco doesn’t want to share its tailings.

“They’re afraid if their contaminants mix they’ll be responsible for all of it,” said Wagner.

So, Alexco wants to create more contaminated sites instead, said Stange.

“They already have a contaminated site and treatment all set up at Elsa, but they want to create a new one at Christal Lake.”

Keno’s advisory board met with the feds to see if Alexco would, in fact, be responsible for United Keno Hill’s contaminants if it used the Elsa site.

And that’s not the case, said Wagner.

Alexco could easily sort out an agreement that would allow it to use the existing tailings and only pay for its waste, he said.

A federal representative even attended Keno’s March 10th meeting with Alexco to discuss possible options, said Wagner.

Keno’s advisory board also invited Yukon government representatives, including Tourism Minister Elaine Taylor and Energy Mines and Resources folk.

But no one showed up.

Wagner was told Taylor was too busy with the upcoming Vancouver Olympics.

“The only YTG guy there was the local mining recorder taking notes,” said Wagner.

The Yukon government doesn’t really seem to view itself as a stakeholder, he said.

“They see it as Keno’s problem.”

Wagner moved to the community 30 years ago, and spent the first 17 of them underground working for United Keno Hill.

“Keno was part of the mining family,” he said.

But in the last 20 years, after the mine shut down, the community has started down a new path.

The government has spent more than $1.5 million marketing Keno as a tourism destination, he said.

The people who stuck around after the mine closed down stayed because they loved their town.

“And we’ve gone our own way,” said Wagner.

The reason power, phone, roads and the highway are still here for Alexco is because Kenoites stayed, he added.

“When United Keno Hill shut down, the phone line was lying on the ground,” said Wagner.

“And now we have high-speed internet.”

Alexco’s Bellekeno Mine project proposal was submitted to YESSA on January 23.

Designated a low priority proposal, consultations with the community or the public were not required.

“Nobody came to Keno to ask how we felt about it as a community,” said Stange.

“I’m flabbergasted it has gotten to the stage it has.

“It will have devastating effects on our town and our tourism.

“Having a mill will turn our quiet little town into an industrial area, and nobody’s going to want to come here.”

“We have kids and a business plan, renting cabins and running tours,” said Keno resident Tracy de la Barre.

“And this is going to change the quality of life for visitors and residents alike.”

This is just the tip of the iceberg, said Wagner.

“Alexco wants to get their foot in the door and establish an industrial site at Christal Lake. Then it will do the exploration necessary to uncover other ore bodies, and increase the stream of ore going to this site.”

No one is against mining, added Stange.

“But there are better ways of doing it.”

“How does the new face of mining have a completely opposite point of view from the community that sits right in the middle of its mining operation? – How is that the new face of mining? – I don’t understand,” said Wagner.

“I’m disappointed that we have to object,” he added.

“We would much prefer to be writing letters of support.”

Alexco did not return calls by press time.

Contact Genesee Keevil at

gkeevil@yukon-news.com