Anybody who's been to Dawson City, Yukon, has likely seen them — large piles of placer mining waste rock, lining the Klondike Highway and the back roads near town.

Now the Yukon government wants to use some of those tailings as a substitute for gravel, in things such as airport and highway maintenance and construction. 

"We're looking at meeting gravel needs over the next 50 years," said Paul Murchison, the director of transportation engineering with the Department of Highways and Public Works.

"We don't have many gravel reserves in this area, and this is an innovative solution."

Dredge tailings on Bonanza Creek, Yukon

A 1977 aerial photo shows dredge tailings on Bonanza Creek near Dawson City. (Natural Resources Canada)

The proposal is now before the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board (YESAB). The YESAB application says the mine tailings around Dawson are suitable for use as fill, and base material for crushing.

It also notes that placer miners have the right to extract gold on their claims, but the waste material and the ground where it's stockpiled belong to the public.

"There would be no money paid for the gravel, but it'd be up to the individual placer miners as to whether or not they'd like to work with us on this," Murchison said.

Money saver

The government argues that the plan could save a lot of money. Quarrying gravel and hauling it over long distances can be expensive, so it makes sense to instead use processed tailings close at hand, Murchison says. 

He says local miners seem to like the idea.

"It eliminates us competing with placer miners for gravel, because in the Dawson region, where there's gravel there's often claims," Murchison said.

The government has not yet determined which tailings piles to use.

Murchison says the goal would be to use what's nearest to a specific project. He also says the most visible tailings in Dawson — the ones alongside the Klondike Highway, east of town — would likely be off-limits.

"They're older piles — there's some heritage values there," he said.

With files from Leonard Linklater