Overlooking the valley that shows open wounds and old scars induced by 100 years of various mining operations, a wave of grief surges through me. Two black rectangular “portals” to the mine allow my mind to drift into the destruction hidden from my field of view. Thousands of feet below me, the earth is chiseled, exploded, and exploited. Yet they speak of “blending” in their surface destruction with the local landscape as if aesthetics are the driving force of environmental concerns. Only the sight to the human eye seems to matter.
I stand not in disgust of mining, but of the justification of extraction that disregards its long-lasting effects to the social and ecological communities. Donella Meadows suggests in her article Dancing with Systems that “we must expand our horizons of time and space to understand our impacts on social ecological systems.” So, I will use this nameless mine to criticize its lousy justification of destruction that seems ubiquitous with the Montana mines that we have visited.
The nameless mine uses massive amounts of explosives that leads to their biggest water contaminant- nitrogen. Nitrogen in the contaminated water is then reduced by an elaborate bacteria filtering system, leaving a little under two parts per million worth of nitrogen in the treated water. The filtered water is then pumped into hay fields and applied with mist producing low pressure nozzles. Some of the once buried nitrogen is released into the blue abyss of Montana sky and the rest landing gracefully on the hay fields. Every day two cow’s worth of sh*t is applied. Every day the sprayers run until the Montana winter forces them to stop. The mine has been intensively extracting since the late 1980’s. It is 2019. Thirty-nine years’ worth of feces on the ground, into the river, and washed away downstream. Out of sight, out of mine.
A member of a community alliance council told our group in a voice saturated with concern that there is a recorded rise of chlorophyll in the river- the one which the mine’s “treated” water is dumped into. There is another roughly 40 years’ worth of “resources” left in the ground. I wonder if the 40 years’ worth of mine produced “manure” stood tall like an ever-growing statue, would the mine still swat at the two cow’s worth of nitrogen they produce as a measly number? Cows move, or we move them, or they don’t move. Eutrophication. That is what happens when too much nitrogen spoils the river’s ecosystems. The river life simply suffocates.
As humans, we struggle to grasp the weight of our actions though temporal and spatial perceptions. We struggle to grasp what two cow’s worth of nitrogen brought into a social-ecological system over 40 years can do. We cannot see the expanding pile of poo, we cannot smell its stench, we cannot see the residual, minute amounts of destruction in the waterway, but the earth can.
Hundreds of years’ worth of poop and other toxins have been tossed over the shoulders of past generations, and are now landing at the feet of present generations. Yet, we look down, frown, step over the mess, and throw these problems over OUR shoulders like a pinch of salt. We need to stop justifying mineral extractions with our “need” to consume. We NEED clean water. There needs to be two cows sh*tting in the mine owner’s garden. Day after day, month after month, year after year-plop. Only then will they realize what two cow’s worth of shit is.