Following World War Two, the production and use of industrial chemicals boomed across the globe. These chemicals were mobilized from their sites of production and consumption into much broader and dispersed spaces, including human bodies. Regulatory policy, however, often assumed that spatial and temporal relationships were simple, so that the closer and the more recent the source, the more risky the exposure was believed to be. The objective of the proposed research is to understand the spatial complexity of envirotechnical systems and how they influenced competing claims to scientific legitimacy regarding contaminants mobilized by iron mining in the Lake Superior basin. Specifically, how did the complicated and often uncertain relationships between spaces of production, spaces of consumption, and spaces of exposure affect the understanding and regulation of toxicity?
Envirotechnical perspectives remind us that there is nothing natural or inevitable about resource development (White 2011). Resources are contingent and they change over time. Calling something a resource pulls it out of its intricate social and ecological relationships, isolating it in our gaze. Yet those isolations are illusions. We still live in intimate relationships with those elements, even if those interconnections have been masked and rendered invisible. The language of inevitability masks the fact of government actions to promote one vision of resources over another. Selenium, mercury, asbestos—perfectly natural chemicals—lie bound and buried in rocks until miners release them while digging for something else that has become defined as a resource. Then as waters move through mining site, these chemicals move it into fish bodies and from there into human bodies. When minerals are dug from the ground; when trees are cut in the forest; when flood waters are diverted, when rivers are dammed, when animals are changed from fellow-creatures to livestock resources, we set into motion subtle processes of toxic transformations that have legacies far into the future. This project aims to make these processes visible.
This research is a component of a larger project that explores the mobilization of toxics from several industries (mining, forestry, and hydropower) across northern watersheds in the post-World War II era. These industrial developments were core components of envirotechnical developments across the north—developments in which engineers mobilized state power (and state power mobilized engineers) to create what James Scott (1998) calls a high-modernist vision of legibility and order. Like other envirotechnical systems in the post World War II north, the expansion into taconite mining receive significant state support, required enormous sums of capital, and irrevocably transformed freshwater ecosystems and the communities that depended upon them. My project situates these engineered spaces as hybrid ecosystems (Latour 1993, Fiege 1999, LeCain 2009, Walker 2010) that collapse the traditional boundaries between natural and synthetic, human and non-human, terrestrial and aquatic.
When mining and other industrial developments across the north were proposed soon after World War II, researchers already knew that some of the chemicals mobilized by development could pose significant risks for environmental and human health. Nonetheless, the mines and other developments were approved. Regulatory policy often assumed that spatial and temporal relationships were simple, so that the closer and the more recent the source, the more risky the exposure was believed to be. As new scientific understandings of toxic mobilization emerged in research communities, efforts to modify existing regulations and permits became extremely contentious, and they remain so today.
THEORIES AND APPROACHES
In New Natures (Pritchard et al. 2013), the authors argue that scholars of Science and Technology Studies (STS) and environmental historians have much to offer each other. Yet while environmental historians have long attended to the reciprocal relations between nature and culture, the field has less often engaged core concepts in STS such as the social processes of knowledge production, the politics of professionalization, and negotiations over expertise (Pritchard 2013, Bocking 2004, Mitman, Murphy, and Sellers 2004). Pritchard suggests that, for environmental historians, “unpacking the processes of knowledge making and technological development [can] illuminate human interactions with nonhuman nature” and “enrich our analyses of those relationships,” (Pritchard 2013, 2). Similarly, Thomas Finger notes that “STS can help environmental historians fully describe this relationship by highlighting how power dynamics within society are bound up in the strategies humans employ to extract resources from the natural world” (Finger 2013, 163) The proposed project responds to Pritchard et al.’s call (2013), using the conceptual tools of hybridity and knowledge construction to explore contested understandings of toxic mobilizations in iron mining.
Hybridity and Envirotechnical Systems Pritchard asks: What happens when we really consider “the deep entanglement of people and the environment”? (Pritchard 2013, 9) In Toxic Bodies (2010), I argued that new technologies for the detection of toxins have drawn increasing attention toward the pervasive and persistent presence of industrial chemicals in our lives. Some of these tests, such as biomonitoring and body burden analyses, highlight that we not only experience our environment in very obvious ways, but that we are also united with it at the molecular level. Trace chemicals found in the air, water, and soil are now been being detected within us. The very chemical composition of our bodies is being altered in ways that reflect the transformations of our everyday environments. Chemicals occupy a position along the slippery border between the natural and cultural worlds. Industrial chemicals, in particular, prove difficult to categorize. They are abundant artifacts of an industrial society brought into being within a highly specific cultural infrastructure, against a backdrop of human evolution that occurred without their presence. And yet, increasingly they are a part of the natural world – and as persistent chemicals, many of them will continue to be a part of the world far into the future, beyond the point of remembering their origins as artificial or synthetic.
An envirotech approach to chemical pollutants involves reconsidering bodies, technologies, and environments, not as separate isolated objects, but as what Bruno Latour termed hybrid networks (Pritchard 2011). The material and the cultural, the human and the nonhuman, in Latour’s terms “weave our world together” (Latour 1993, 1-2). As I argued in Toxic Bodies (2010), the hybrid networks we have created with chemical pollutants resist the attempt to define clear boundaries between natural and synthetic, material and cultural. Our perceptions of the risks posed by toxins are clearly culturally constructed, yet environmental history’s insistence on materiality is essential here as well. When we point to the complicated and fluid boundaries between natural and synthetic, we run the risk of implying that environmental contamination is merely a social construct. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although human bodies can be conceived of, in Judith Butler’s terms, “a site of cultural inscription,” (Butler 1999, 164) they are also profoundly material, subjects and sources of environmental degradation. The chemical pollutants we release into watersheds eventually find their ways back inside our bodies, with complex and poorly understood consequences. And in turn, what happens inside our bodies does not vanish inside us, but makes it way back out, often with surprising effects.
A key goal of this project is to examine the spatial relationships and processes that have frequently made these hybrid interconnections invisible. The STS scholar Anne Fausto-Sterling writes that we have “forced the hybrid networks linking nature and culture underground….Although a strategy of ignoring hybrids worked in the beginning, it embodied a paradox. The better it worked, the more unacknowledged hybrids developed. The more we dominated nature, the more the proof of our domination poured into culture; the more culture dominated nature, and the more we created objects that were neither truly natural nor truly cultural.” (Fausto-Sterling 2003). Specifically, quantitative risk assessment has been based on what the sociologists of science Steven Kroll-Smith and Worth Lancaster call the “Enlightenment-inspired idea that bodies and environments are genuinely discrete realities….By assuming a categorical distinction between bodies and environments, regulatory authorities can then “issue a ‘pollutant discharge permit’ licensing the right to contaminate environments as ‘long as the exposure is below the threshold at which’ environmental toxins adversely affect bodies.”(Kroll-Smith and Lancaster 2002) The implicit assumption is that nature and culture, bodies and environments are separate enough that one can contaminate the soil, water, or air, without contaminating people. A closer look at envirotechnical systems undermines that assumption.
In Toxic Bodies (2010), I show that beliefs in certain boundaries between male and female, human and nonhuman, natural and synthetic, shaped the inability of toxicology to identify endocrine disruption and its risks. Using nanotechnology as his case study, Morris (2012) comes to similar conclusions. As he argues, “uncertainty over nanomaterials’ place in the natural-human created…continuum destabilizes discourse over what regulatory science evidence will be required to determine the risk of nanomaterials.” This, in turn, “drives discourse toward a narrow articulation of risk.” (Morris 2012, 22). After risk becomes narrowly defined in the regulatory arenas, it is easier for advocates of the new technology to argue that they have additional technologies will remove risks by increasing control over natural phenomena (Morris 2012). In this project, I hypothesize that similar boundary issues may also have shaped understandings of risks from mining contamination.
Constructions of environmental expertise: Whose knowledge counts? Fischer (2000) has examined the tension between professional expertise and various forms of local, contextual knowledge that have often been overlooked or actively suppressed in the environmental policy process. Barbara Allen (2003, 2014) has shown that local knowledge and public input have played key roles in environmental contamination discourses and regulations. Yet these processes are rarely easy, because different groups have very different resources for competing in the regulatory area, and power relations are embedded in scientific regulation (Sellers 1997, Nash 2006). Discourse analysis has helped STS scholars examine the ways different scientific understandings gain power within the regulatory process (Fairclough 1989; Jørgensen and Phillips 2002, Gergen 1985). Scott Frickel (2013) shows how chemical mutagens became reconstructed as a threat. Michael Egan explores how Swedish scientists “not only constituted mercury pollution as a pressing issue but framed it in ways designed to reach a wider, public audience, to increase its likelihood of being taken up by government regulators and policy makers” (Egan 2013, 11). While Egan shows some forms of expert knowledge help construct environmental risk and reforms, other forms of knowledge may hide those same risks. The interests of the state, combined with the interests of industry, often complicate the integration of new information about contaminants into policymaking (Oreskes and Conway 2010, Langston 2010, Vogel 2013).
While STS pays close attention to the contexts in which knowledge is produced, I am particularly interested in the contexts in which knowledge is suppressed and even forgotten (Frickel and Edwards 2014, Boudia and JasNash 2006, 2014). Andrew Mathews shows that discourse analysis helps us understand how and why local communities may “come to forget or ignore uncomfortable or inconvenient data, because it highlights the power of the tacit and unspoken to suppress information,” (Mathews 2003, 4) While knowledge systems mediate our understandings of the environment, they also mediate our ignorance of the environment. Frank Uekotter has recently shown for German agriculture, “there is a type of ignorance that makes the ignorant strong” (Uekotter 2013, 50). Was this true for mining contamination as well? I hypothesize that it may have been.
Historical Background Iron ore has been mined for over a century in the Lake Superior watershed. By World War II, over 80% of American iron ore came from the region. Before the war, deep pit hematite mines dominated production in the basin. While these mines posed risks to workers, their toxic contamination was contained. After the war, a shift to taconite mines occurred, and those taconite mines posed far more dispersed environmental risks because they required enormous open pits, removed significant quantities of overburden, and processed mercury-rich ore. During the transformation from direct-shipping ore mines to taconite mines in the post WW2 era, potential risks from these toxic mobilizations became a key focus for regulatory disputes, and they remain so today.
Since 2011, proposals by a company named Gogebic Taconite (GTAC) for a new iron mine just upstream of the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa reservation have been sharply contested. The proposed mine lies on one side of a legal boundary, but waters flow across those boundaries to contaminate water, fish, and people throughout a complex watershed. If permits were approved, the GTAC mine would become the world’s largest open-pit mine. While it would lie outside the reservation, it would be located within ceded territories—where the tribes retained hunting, fishing, gathering, and co-management rights when they signed the 19th century treaties enabling white settlement. The Bad River runs through the potential mine site before entering the 16,000-acre Kakagon-Bad River Sloughs--the largest undeveloped wetland complex in the upper Great Lakes. In 2012, this was designated as a Ramsar Site, recognizing it as a wetland of international importance. The Convention noted that “as the only remaining extensive coastal wild rice bed in the Great Lakes region, it is critical to ensuring the genetic diversity of Lake Superior wild rice” (Ramsar 2012).
The sloughs make up 40% of the remaining wetlands on Lake Superior’s coast, and they contain the largest natural wild rice beds in the entire world. For members of the Bad River Band, these wild rice beds are central to their identity. When the Anishinabeg migrated westward from the Saint Lawrence River valley, the ancestors of the Bad River Band chose to make their homes along the Kakagon Sloughs because the wild rice beds they found there had figured heavily in their visions. In the sloughs, they found wid rice or manoomin, “the food that grows on water”, which they continue to see as a “sacred gift from the Creator,” (Reynolds 2003). The wild rice became a major portion of their subsistence, and fisheries supported by the sloughs became equally important for subsistence and for economic development. Wild rice is extremely sensitive to sulfates in the watershed, which may become mobilized by taconite mines. Band members argue that stopping the mine is essential for their survival, not just to ensure thriving wild rice beds and fisheries, but also to sustain the connection with the past that is at the core of their cultural identity.
In contrast, many Euroamerican residents of nearby communities argue that the proposed mine is the only thing that can rescue them from the economic devastation that followed the closure of local hematite iron mines in the 1960s. or place and community” are common at mining sites…While regarded by ‘outsiders’ as brutal, degraded or even toxic, former mining landscapes may be touchstones of community identity and memory and provide both material and cultural resources for economic recovery or even political resistance.” (Sandlos and Keeling 2012). This is certainly true for iron mines in the Lake Superior basin. Different communities within the basin have different interpretations of the mining past, and these views about the past help to shape their perspectives on toxic risks posed by current mining proposals.
Mining in the Lake Superior basin is not new, but the technologies for extensive extraction are recent (Reynolds and Dawson 2011). In the Gogebic range, an 1848 report by A. Randall described the presence of hematite iron ore, and extraction began in 1886. Over in Minnesota, on the Mesabi Range, iron mining began with discovery of hematite iron ore in 1865, production in 1885, and rapid expansion through the 1890s. In both places, mining efforts targeted the high-grade hematite ores that were concentrated and did not require extensive processing before being shipped through the Great Lakes to steel mills (Kohlmeyer 1964). As early as the 1890s, mining engineers had argued that while surface deposits of the concentrated hematite appeared limited, beneath them lay extensive deposits of taconite. Hematite, in fact, is closely related to taconite, for it represents “the oxidized and purified surface weathering product of the much more extensive but lower grade taconite ore beneath,” (Fitz 2012). Taconite was much more extensive, but because it lies buried under deep rock, and because it is a low grade ore, most engineers in the 19th century assumed it would always be difficult to mine cost-effectively.
By the end of World War II, fears of depletion of the concentrated hematite ore had become common in the United States (Manuel 2013). The war effort had demanded significant quantities of iron ore, and during the war, the range had supplied two thirds of the ore for the US military. After the war, a chorus of journalistic and engineering voices warned that America would soon run out of vital iron for steel production, unless new deposits were mobilized, and this would mean mining taconite ore. Resource depletion is a cultural construct mediated by technology, rather than an absolute measure of a quantity of a resource. If all one has is a pick, an ore body will appear depleted as soon as the accessible ore is chipped away. But if the 5.5 million-pound explosives that taconite operations now use are available, miners can access entire ore bodies that were essentially invisible in earlier accounts of minerals, because they were deemed impossible to mine.
While most iron production within the Lake Superior basin was sited on US lands, the waste from mining made its way into waters that were co-managed by both the United States and Canada through the International Joint Commission. Transnational contaminants complicated national boundaries, in other words. The pressures to develop new mines also reflecting growing global political interconnections. Depletion fears were embedded with Cold War political concerns which helped mobilize state power to promote the shift to taconite mining. US iron and steel companies had developed extensive networks of international iron sources during WW2 (Kakela 1978). With the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959, Canadian ore could be shipped economically to steel mills bordering the Great Lakes, potentially undermining US control of steel production. By 1950, engineers argued that hematite depletion on the iron range demanded new funds, new tax policies, and relaxed environmental standards in order to ensure American national security. The most important mining engineer on Minnesota’s Iron Range, Edward Davis, worked for decades to persuade a skeptical public and legislature that taconite ores could be processed cost effectively, thus replacing hematite supplies that were available more cheaply in other nations (Manuel 2013). Davis eventually persuaded the Minnesota legislature to adopt a tax code that shifted a significant proportion of the costs of taconite mining to communities, encouraging a boom in taconite investments.
As Timothy LeCain (2009) argues in Mass Destruction, the development of open pit mining involved several key elements including a rationalized, an envirotechnical system, and significant environmental destruction. In the Lake Superior basin, the massive expansion in taconite technologies borrowed quite directly from copper technologies in the US west. Davis went west to learn from the copper mining that Tim LeCain writes so well about in Mass Destruction. LeCain (2009) and Brett Walker (2010) explore the ways that experts sought solutions to pollution problems within high-modernist perspectives of engineering (Scott 1999). Simplifying and rationalizing complex ecological systems in hopes of controlling their fluctuations rarely worked (Langston 1995). LeCain describes the very visible environmental deterioration that accompanied copper open pit mines in the US west, including dead trees from the sulfur and belching clouds of poisonous gases contributing to lung diseases. In contrast, the toxicities from taconite were much more subtle than those from copper, making them hard to unravel from ordinary environmental noise. How did this added layer of uncertainty change the dynamics of regulation?
Research Questions and Preliminary Findings
Aim 1. How was scientific information about toxic risk incorporated into initial development of taconite mining? The environmental consequences of taconite mining had the potential to be significantly different than those from deep pit iron mines, because exposure to air and water mobilized contaminants in new ways. The proposed research will examine the ways scientists, policymakers, and communities engaged with emerging science during the initial post World War II development of the taconite mining industry in the basin. To what extent did scientific research serve the state’s interests in economic development? To what extent did scientific controversies slow this expansion? In 1947, two of the world’s largest iron companies, Armco and Republic Steel, joined forces to create the Reserve Mining Company. Two decades later, conflicts over the toxic byproducts of this mine—particularly asbestos fibers that made their way into Duluth’s drinking water and citizens—would lead to the most inflammatory environmental lawsuit in America’s history (Berndt and Brice 2008). Reserve Mining Company applied for permits to mine taconite at Babbitt MN and process it on the shores of Lake Superior at Silver Bay, with the lake supplying both the abundant water needed for taconite processing, and a convenient location for tailings disposal. The company requested permits to use over 500,000 gallons of water per minute from Lake Superior water and deposit about 67,000 tons of tailings each day into the lake—eventually totaling 400 million tons of tailings (Huffman 2005). Before granting permits, planners and regulators held a series of hearings to decide whether those tailings would be safe. The meanings of safety, however, were contested among various stakeholders. Fishermen from communities along Minnesota’s north shore expressed concerns that tailings and water withdrawals might devastate fish habitat and ruin their economic base, while other citizens testified about their fears that silica in the tailings might lead to silicosis. Nevertheless, the state granted permits for the mine to dispose tailings directly into Lake Superior.
Why did the state grant these permits? Depletion concerns in the Lake Superior basin existed within specific political contexts, intended to generate pressure for government funds and new tax policies that would benefit taconite mines over direct shipping ore mines. Did these pressures influence the ways that scientists, regulators, and policymakers approached new understandings of toxicity? The Attorney General of Minnesota’s office contains the permit hearing records which will shed light on this question.
Which kinds of scientific understandings were deployed by the state? Gieryn’s concept of boundary-work illuminates the ways researchers create and maintain borders between disciplines (Gieryn 1983). When the state granted the permits in November 1947, they were based on evidence of safety that were derived from Engineer Davis’s laboratory, not from fisheries laboratories. Estimates of risk were based on Davis’s models of sediment movement, not on biological systems or fisheries. Preliminary findings show that fisheries scientists were involved in the permit hearings. One question I will ask: did these biological considerations become part of the scientific discourse shaping initial permit considerations? If not, why not? For example, modeling often gains power in court and regulatory disputes that ecological and historical understandings lack because they can be framed as anecdotal. Ornithologists were often first to notice changes in the bodies of fish-eating birds, and fisheries biologists were initially reluctant to accept the idea that toxics could have any significant effect on populations (Ludwig 2013). Engineers may have been even more reluctant. Why did these differences emerge?
To what extent did understandings of toxicity influence early expansion of the industry? Why were taconite mines promoted and approved, given potential toxic risks? One possibility is that early planners and regulators who approved the early taconite mine permits may not have understand that contaminants posed any potential risk. In other words, an absence of scientific knowledge explains the initial permitting decision. This argument would imply that when new knowledge about asbestos was gained, permits were then denied. Preliminary findings show that this was not the case for taconite mining. Risks of exposure to contaminants such as mercury, asbestos, and acid drainage were widely discussed in the scientific literature of the era, which refutes the argument that few scientists suspected toxicity. Because Cold War political concerns about iron and steel depletion created pressures to develop the north, those pressures may have overridden concerns about toxicity. Even though scientists may have been aware of potential toxicity and made those risks clear to regulators, regulators may have decided the risks were worth taking because, in their view, the benefits of development outweighed those risks. Another (not mutually exclusive) possibility is that the spatial and historical context of toxic contamination made it appear to regulators that potential risks would be small. Because earlier iron mines had been deep pit hematite mines which exposed few contaminants directly to air and water, that historical experience may have shaped the ways that scientists and regulators approached the potential for mobilization of toxics from new mines.
To what extent were changing spatial understanding of the effects of toxic contaminants on the health of fish, birds, and humans deployed during initial planning and regulatory debates? If field measurements taken close to sources of production showed low levels of the contaminants, then regulators might well assume that dilution and biological processes of breakdown were working to ensure safety for exposed communities, not realizing that those particularly contaminants might have been mobilized into other spaces of exposure. Preliminary findings show that when certain toxics were initially released, scientists in the US, and Canada did debate their potential for harm. The hope was that natural metabolic systems would break them down, rendering them harmless. American researchers measured contamination of mercury and asbestos close to production sites. Those numbers appeared reassuring: only tiny amounts of toxic material remained intact. Regulators inferred from this that because contaminants appeared to have essentially vanished from local sources of industrial production, their use was indeed relatively risk-free. Yet these contaminants hadn’t always broken down. Some of them, such as mercury and asbestos, had become mobilized into global atmospheric systems and watersheds, moving from their sites of production and consumption into much broader and dispersed spaces.
Aim 2: How was new information about toxicity incorporated into environmental regulation? In Toxic Bodies (Langston 2010), I argued that the key stage for regulators who are trying to use scientific knowledge to balance risks with benefits is when new scientific information emerges that questions the safety of entrenched project. Typically, each time regulators reached the limits of their knowledge about the potential risks of contaminant exposure, they decided to move ahead with exposing people and environments to toxics. Each time they vowed to use exposure as an experiment of sorts, one that would be monitored and learned from. Contaminants were released with the underlying assumption that any major problems would emerge in time for corrective action. How well were regulators actually able to accomplish this?
Were possible problems being monitored, and when new information emerged from monitoring, were regulators able to correct course and integrate that new information? STS scholar Barbara Allen’s research (2014) explores the challenges in changing older technologies when problems emerge after they have become entrenched. Taconite mobilization offers an excellent set of cases to analyze these questions. In 1947, the permits that allowed Reserve Mining to dispose tailings into Lake Superior were subject to three key conditions: first, that the tailings would not discolor the water outside narrowly defined areas; second, that the tailings would not harm fish life in Lake Superior; third, that Reserve would be liable for any harm to water quality. The state reserved the right to revoke the permits if Reserve violated any of its conditions, including an important condition that discharge was not to include “material amounts of wastes other than taconite,” (Huffman 2005). How will was the state to question or revoke permits when new scientific information emerged about toxicity after the industry had become critical to the local, state, and regional economy? Preliminary findings suggest that monitoring and incorporating new scientific information was extremely difficult, given political pressures on the state. By the late 1960s, local environmental organizations, commercial fishermen, and sport-fishing groups were complaining to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency that taconite tailings were killing fish and clouding the waters. The state refused to use its powers to intervene, even though permit conditions appeared to have been violated. I will use archival records and interviews to ask: Why was the state slow to intervene?
What scientific findings eventually motivated the state to act? Only after claims that asbestos had been mobilized from taconite disposal into the drinking water and bodies of urban residents distant from the disposal site did the federal and state governments officially begin to question risks from taconite. The plant’s exhaust stacks were also emitting asbestos-form fibers into the air. On behalf of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Reserve in 1973, beginning a trial and appeals processes that would last for a decade. In early June 1973, Judge Miles Lord heard testimony from a specialist in asbestos exposure, Dr. Irving Seikoff, who confirmed that the city’s drinking water contained asbestos from the tailings. The concentration was surprisingly high: 100 billion fibers per liter of water, which was at least a “'1000 times higher' than any asbestos level previously found in any water sample” (Huffman 2005). Reserve Mining Company disputed evidence about toxic mobilization, arguing in complex ways that asbestos could not possibly move from tailing into Lake Superior, from Lake Superior into drinking water, and from drinking water into lungs. Moreover, data suggesting toxicity did not always made it out of industry labs into regulatory spaces. Michael Egan, in his essay on the coproduction of environmental knowledge and mercury regulation, discusses one Swedish chemist who intentionally “ obfuscated the debate…[by suggesting’ that the high mercury levels might be attributed to naturally occurring mercury in Swedish rocks and soil, as well as industrial mercury” (Egan 2013, 110). Preliminary findings from the EPA records makes me suspect that similar processes occurred in taconite mining debates. My examinations of records from Reserve Mining trial shows that key players within the federal government accused Reserve Mining Company of suppressing relevant scientific information and designing controls that would make it impossible to detect the movement of asbestos fibers from taconite tailings. I expect the court records to be rich sources of information about the ways scientists, legal authorities, and industry confronted scientific uncertainty.
Aim 3: How have various groups have used historical information to understand and regulate toxics? Regulators and scientists have used evidence about ecological change to guide environmental policy and enforcement, but the ways this evidence has been used is often controversial. What tensions have developed between the use of historical data and modeling? How has evidence about changing contamination levels in fish, birds, and people become incorporated into policy, or else dismissed?
History and Acid Drainage Acid mine drainage represents a mixture of natural and constructed toxicities. Many iron formations contain heavy metals that would be toxic if they were mobilized into biological systems. Typically, they’re bound in stable formations, where they don’t move into the atmosphere or the water supply on times scales that matter for biological life. (Over millions of years, they do mobilize, suggesting how important considerations of scale will be for this project). But when acid conditions are present, those chemicals and heavy metals can rapidly move into biological systems. Mines with acid drainage issues will need to be cared for in perpetuity, guarding against the acidity and the toxic leakages that can flow for essentially all time, altering ecosystems, eradicating wild rice and the cultures that depend on wild rice.
Taconite proponents have often argued that taconite is a safe ore that can be mined with minimal toxicity concerns (Gedicks and Blouin 2013). The argument has two parts: first, because taconite itself rarely contains iron sulfides or pyrites—which can produce acid mine drainage—it’s represented by mining advocate as pure. Second, they point out that the extraction process does not hydrosulfuric acid, which creates acid drainage problems in other mining operations. Technically, both these details are correct, but the conclusion that follows (therefore taconite mining has no toxicity concerns) ignores the spatial context of taconite within a watershed. First, taconite is a low-concentration iron ore, and to extract that valuable part, the rest of the rock (the tailings) must be crushed to a fine dust, mixed with water, then dewatered and stacked in piles or dumped into water. These tailings particles are quite easily eroded by wind and water, and from there they become mobilized into the watershed.
Second, toxicity issues are presented by the configuration of what is typically termed the overburden. (Note that this particular engineering language reframes a complex ecosystem—forests, forbs, birds, habitat, streams, the many different communities within the soil, the layers of rock that lies under the soil—as a burden that blocks the true resource, taconite. Local communities have objected to the terminology of mining, arguing that it renders invisible the interconnected biological, geological, and hydrological communities that sustain their community.) While the taconite may not contain pyrites and iron sulfide, the overburden contains both. It is difficult to access the taconite without transforming the landscape into something that can cause acid mine drainage. In 1929 the Wisconsin Geological Survey reported that pyrite is associated with local ore and waste rock, and a USGS report concluded the same thing in 2009. When ground to a fine dust (as required for taconite extraction), then exposed to oxygen and water, pyrites create sulfuric acid, that leaches harmful metals such as lead, arsenic, and mercury that mobilize into groundwater and surface water.
Wild rice is particularly sensitive to even extremely low levels of acidic drainage, creating enormous concerns for the tribes. Past taconite mines in Minnesota have continued to leach sulfates into wild rice beds, decades after closure. Ecological history studies have shown that wild rice was once abundant in the upper St. Louis River watershed (above Duluth) before the 1950s, when taconite mining boomed. Currently, sulfate levels are high in the St. Louis River, and wild rice stands are few and stunted. The tailings basin once owned by LTV Taconite still leaches sulfates and other contaminates into the St. Louis River, and from there into Lake Superior. Elsewhere on the north shore, the Minntac taconite tailings basin is leaching 3 million gallons per day of sulfates and related pollutants into two watersheds. For decades, regulations in Minnesota have required very low sulfate levels to protect wild rice (10 mg/l), yet not a single taconite mine is in compliance. Why has the MPCA been reluctant to enforce their own standards? Preliminary research suggests that because those standards are based on historical data, they have been vulnerable to criticism by legislators. One legislator in Minnesota has proposed to increase the state’s sulfate limit to 250 mg/l, the level that models suggest is safe for adult drinking water. An unwillingness to interpret the evidence of historical change suggests that the boundaries between regulation, ecological history, and the mining industry remain contested.
History and the mobilization of mercury across temporal and spatial boundaries. Mercury offers an excellent case for exploring the complex relationships between ecological change, industrial development, and contamination data (Walker 2010, Egan 2013). How have regulators and policymakers interpreted and incorporated evidence of changing contamination levels in fish, birds, and people? How has spatial complexity and historical uncertainty influenced the use of such data sets? In 2009, the US Geological Survey reported that mercury contamination was found in every fish tested at nearly 300 streams across the country (USGS 2009). The highest levels of mercury were detected in some of the places most remote from industrial activity. Remoteness offers no protection, and the very richness of the remote wetlands increases their vulnerability to toxic conversions. Methylmercury finds its way into fish and eventually into the people eating that fish. Eating fish is of great cultural significance, particularly for indigenous communities in the basin. But its potential contamination forces communities to make trade-offs between their beliefs and possible harm to themselves. How much fish do you eat when it’s culturally important? How much do you eat when you’re pregnant? These are difficult dilemmas posed by changes in watershed health. Contaminants transform more than the health of lakes, fish, and forests; they also transform cultural identities as well. Interpreting the historic evidence of fish and human contamination has become a politically and culturally complex exercise (Visser 2007, Mansfield 2012, O’Neill 2000).
Taconite processing is now the primary source of mercury produced within the Lake Superior basin, surpassing production from coal power plants. However, much of the mercury that actually accumulates within the basin comes not from local sources of production, but from global sources that have been mobilized through atmospheric processes. This creates a tension: will controls of mercury emitted from local taconite processing actually reduce exposure to contaminants? Or will those controls indirectly increase exposures, if they shut down the local taconite industry, displacing production to China, which might then release greater levels of mercury emissions that return to Lake Superior waters, fish, and people. Unraveling local versus global sources and exposures presents enormous challenges for regulatory communities. The proposed research will examine how different stakeholders have interpreted and used spatial and historic data on changing contamination levels.
Proposed New Mines and the Uses of History. How has historic knowledge been deployed in regulatory debates about risks from future toxic contamination? When and why have historic data sets been used, or ignored, when policymaking occurs? What kinds of lessons are drawn from the past? What kinds of lessons are devalued in favor of more quantitative understandings from modeling or laboratory work? This portion of the proposed research will examine the ways that discussions of new taconite mines continue to occur in the shadow of the Reserve Mining Company’s release of tailings into Lake Superior and the resultant concern about asbestos exposure. When GTAC argues that taconite is perfectly safe, they interpret the Reserve Mining history as an example of what happens when environmentalists and regulators overreach and shut down an region’s economy for an unproven threat. For many environmentalists in the basin, in contrast, the Reserve Mining history suggests how treacherous taconite mining can be to water quality. Mine proponents counter by arguing that because new mines will stack tailings on land rather than dumping them into Lake Superior, one cannot draw a connection between an historic episode and a technologically- advanced future. People who want the mines back point to a time when miners had good jobs, rarely mentioning the lung diseases that haunted the Iron Range, or the collapse of economies when the companies pulled out. Mining opponents argue, in contrast, that historic economic benefits were outweighed by the costs of past toxic exposures. For these stakeholders, while the economic benefits did not remain, the health costs have lingered. Contested interpretations of the past continue to shape current conflicts.
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