Site specifics: Montague

My first site visit to see and experience gold mine tailings was at Montague. This readily accessible site sits somewhat in the middle of a small neighbourhood, with open mine shafts nearby where children are dropped off by their school buses after school, and where families hang out laundry and reassure that their dogs are friendly to visitors that approach. This also means that this tailings site, highly contaminated with arsenic and mercury, has become a playground for thrill-seekers looking for open sandy pits to rip around in on their 4-wheelers, installing props such as makeshift wooden jump ramps. Our careful approach involved some protective equipment – certainly lab gloves and footwear that could be easily washed off to decontaminate it after our trek through.

I was struck by the strange, desolate beauty of the poisonous sand where it glowed a deep gold, where water had collected in pits to create ponds. Being well versed in Edward Burtynsky‘s industrial landscape photo series, I was compelled to attempt to capture this odd and dangerous, seemingly-extraplanetary landscape (see “Gallery” tab for more photos).

gold ponds1

The tailings still contain gold, which mining companies are interested in re-processing in order to extract every last bit. The pesky toxicants in them, however, currently prevent this. I collected two tubes of the golden stuff to use for testing, to see if my newly cultured inoculum of Cupriavidus metallidurans can thrive in it, as well as to streak soil dilutions to test if any environmental microbes are already present.

We had the opportunity to also collect more goldenrod samples, from a cap site, where attempts to reduce toxicant exposure with a covering had been overtaken by plant species. Brittany and I will use those to dye some natural fibres for use in the project. Interestingly, other areas as well had been overcome with lichen growth, various fungi, and vegetation layers built successively over the polluted ground. I was surprised to see so much lichen, given its sensitivity to contaminants, though perhaps this indicates that the contaminants are not really airborne. There were even several bright orange-legged frogs in some of the puddles near the entrance of the site (though certainly not in the golden ponds).

Brittany collects more goldenrod at the Montague cap site (video still).

On our drive back, we had a discussion about ideas around contamination and containment, the pscyho-social aspects along with the physical/ environmental aspects. Concepts of contamination are typically surrounded by strategies to prevent bleeding through, from what is pure or natural to what is damaged, bad, poisonous, dangerous. We could see, from the human/machine 4-wheeler tracks to the other rogue species that moved into the arsenic zone, that the open accessibility of the site in general and its proximity to housing and families, fosters a “living with” contaminated land as part of a life experience in and around Halifax.

Bioremediation efforts could be promoted in some cases, in order to make the still-rich goldmine tailings re-usable for further extraction (and thus, newly poisoned). This “dark ecology” (see Research Resources for links to Timothy Morton’s book, Dark Ecology – For a Logic of Future Co-existence) is one that warrants further dissection. Can we or should we really ever attempt to “restore the earth” to a garden of Eden state? What are our reasons? What harms might we do, or re-do in the process? How much does an ecology restore itself if left alone, and how does a microbial remediation intervention factor into this?