Mining, as the human activity responsible for some of the planet’s most dramatic landscape transformations and the largest proportion of total industrial waste flows, is a particularly salient topic for considering the intersections of technology, economy, and discards in the Anthropocene epoch. This epoch is proposed as a designation of the period of Earth’s recent geological history during which human activities have come to dominate natural systems at the global scale. For instance, mineral exploitation now displaces as much surficial material as do geological processes such as slope failure, erosion, etc. The volume of this material, the vast majority of which is waste, insofar as it does not contain recoverable material or is separated from the target mineral, is on the order of thousands of millions of tonnes annually. Contemporary large-scale mining processes tend to produce “wastelanded” territories, particular landscapes (and their inhabitants) rendered pollutable through material-discursive processes that construct such places as (paradoxically) both valueless and exploitable (Voyles 2015).

Pit lake, NWT

Flooded open pit at Pine Point mine, Northwest Territories, Canada.

Our recent edited book, Mining and Communities in Northern Canada: History, Politics and Memory, explores some of these dynamics with reference to the historical geography of mineral development in Northern Canada. As we write in the introduction, “hardrock mining was the most important activity that brought industrial development to Northern Canada in the twentieth century.” Accompanying these developments—indeed, part of their very purpose—was the extension of southern Canadian state and economic power into indigenous territories, with the aim of drawing these lands and peoples into modern capitalist relations. “Yet the costs of such development have become increasingly evident in recent decades. Former mine sites have left in their wake not only a toxic legacy of tailings ponds and waste rock dumps, but also a history of social and economic dislocation that continues to disproportionately impact northern Native communities.”

Several chapters of the volume examine how these wasted lands and toxic residuals left a bitter legacy for northern indigenous communities, which remained largely excluded from the economic benefits of mineral development. For instance, Sarah Gordon’s powerful examination of uranium mining and radiological hazards at Port Radium, Northwest Territories, highlights how community memory surrounding the discovery of uranium intersects with more recent attempts to reconcile the colonial past of the mine with community healing in the present. Hereward Longley examines the decades long struggle of the Fort McKay First Nation for recognition of toxic contamination of their air, lands and waters downstream from the Athabasca tar sands developments in Northern Alberta. Community activist Kevin O’Reilly similarly reflects on Yellowknife, NWT, residents’ efforts to insert community voices into the technocratic remediation proposals for the abandoned Giant Mine. There, 237,000 tons of arsenic trioxide waste is stored underground at the mine, a staggering amount of highly toxic material that will require care and maintenance in perpetuity.

Pipes at Giant Mine

Pipes and detritus accumulated in the tailings area at Giant Mine, Northwest Territories, Canada

Other chapters focus on the socio-economic and environmental dislocations associated with large-scale mining and patterns of community resistance and accomodation emerging from local encounters with industrialism. In many instances documented in the book, the effects of these abandoned mines associated with these historic developments persist well after the putative end of mining, whether through long-term toxicity, landscape degradation or socio-economic dislocation. We have come to think of these sites as “zombie mines,” sites that continue to exert some sort of malevolent effects during their interminable afterlife. This concept speaks to the temporalities of waste and wasting, and the material ongoingness of mining’s impact on landscapes and communities.

Mining and Communities in Northern Canada: History, Politics and Memory, edited by Arn Keeling and John Sandlos, is published by University of Calgary Press and available as a free PDF ebook at the link above, as well as through the usual online outlets.

References:

Hudson-Edwards, K., H.E. Jamieson, and B. Lottermoser (2011) “Mine Wastes: Past, Present, Future,” Elements 7,6: 375-380.

Keeling, A. (2012) “Mining Waste” in C. Zimring (Ed.), SAGE Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste (Sage), 553-556

Lottermoser, B. (2003) Mine Wastes: Characterization, treatment and environmental impacts. Berlin: Springer.

Sandlos, J., and A. Keeling (2013) “Zombie Mines and the (Over)burden of  History,” Solutions 4,3 (June): 80-83.

Voyles, T. B. (2015). Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo County. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.