Busting Ghosts: Building an HGIS to Reveal Historical Mine Waste Producers and Develop Strategies to Mitigate Future Risk

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Editor’s NoteThis post is the fifth in the “Seeds: New Research in Environmental History” series cosponsored by NiCHE and Edge Effects, highlighting the work of members of the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) Graduate Student Caucus. This series serves to highlight new work being done in the field of environmental history and connect this research to other fields and contemporary issues. Graduate caucus members were asked to respond to the following questions: ““How does your work push at the boundaries of current literature and add to existing discussions of the environment/environmental history? What forces drive your research?” 

In August of 2015 the Animas River in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains turned mustard-yellow. A long and complex history of metal mining in the region had mixed a 3-million gallon cocktail, spiked with cadmium, lead and arsenic within the now infamous Gold King Mine. These chemicals leached into the ground water that seeped into the mine’s underground workings – eventually pouring through an historical mine drain and contaminating waters in three states (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Overview of the Animas River prior to the Gold King disaster. Remains of the Toltec mine in foreground (Photograph courtesy of Dan Turner).

The Gold King Mine is just one of an estimated half-million abandoned mines in the United States – places where mining companies removed the mineral value from the landscape, but left behind billions of tons of mine waste for the public to manage. Luckily, for the public and for policy-makers, the locations of many of these mines had been recorded by government agencies in the past. Originally, the U.S. Bureau of Mines conducted oversight of mining in the United States, but in the mid-1990s and owing in part to the Republican revolution, this agency was defunded and closed. Responsibility for mining oversight in the United States was doled out piecemeal to a number of different government agencies including the United States Geological Survey (USGS).

Today, the USGS maintains a digital inventory of mines in a spatial database accessible to the public. Although the USGS database contains the location of many historical and abandoned mines, the thousands of facilities that crushed, concentrated, and processed much of the ore removed from these mines remain relatively undocumented and unmonitored, as does the waste that these facilities left behind. My current research focuses on the Mesabi Iron Range in northern Minnesota, the preeminent producer of iron ore in the United States, shipping more than 3.8-billion tons of ore from 1893 to today (Figure 2). All of this mining produced tremendous landscape-scale changes, where more than a century of iron ore mining has transformed the Range into a veritable landscape of waste. Sitting atop the 100,000-acre stretch of the Biwabik iron formation that once drew mining companies to the Range is 125,000 acres of mine waste and open-pit scars. While the mining industry is unquestionably the source of this waste, questions surrounding where all of this mine waste came from, and what it consists of remain?

Figure 2: Overview of the Lake Superior Basin and the Mesabi Iron Range

My dissertation explores mining landscapes through the lens of environmental history and industrial heritage – asking: How did mining impact the environment? What were the community responses to these impacts? And how are these contested landscapes memorialized in a heritage context? In a recent publication, Michigan Tech. Social Sciences Professors Nancy Langston, Don Lafreneire and myself explored how to use Historical Geographic Information Systems (HGIS) to identify the location, the quantity, and the origin of historical mine waste in the Lake Superior Iron District. For this research we built an HGIS database to examine how different technological phases of iron mining produced different environmental impacts, specifically, in the quantity of ore extracted and the tonnage of tailings produced.

The first step in constructing our HGIS was to identify the extent of mining across the landscape. To do this, we used the database of mines maintained on the USGS website. However, this dataset only includes the names and spatial coordinates of the mines, with no real metric to quantify the environmental impacts from mining. To understand how the more than 400 iron mines impacted the environment of the Lake Superior basin, we looked to historical trade journals that published annual ore shipment data from these mines. We manually collected and entered these data into our HGIS, totaling 11,447 entries from 1898 to 2012 (Figure 3). Our HGIS now allowed us to analyze how individual mines impacted the region across space and time. The Lake Superior Iron District underwent three phases of mining, shifting from high-grade ores to progressively lower-grade ores. As mining shifted to lower-grade ores we see an increase in ore shipments from a shrinking number of mines across the landscape – spatial shifts that produced concentrated pockets of activity around massive open-pit mines.

Figure 3: Attribute table from the author’s HGIS

We next sought to understand how these mines compared in terms of tailings production, the mine waste produced from processing low-grade ores. Since there was no existing dataset of iron ore processing plants, this step required building a database from scratch. To do this we consulted archival documents, historical trade journals, industry maps, US Bureau of Mines reports, state records, and historical aerial imagery searching for information related to the location and operating dates of these facilities. In total, we located more than 100 processing plants that once operated across the Lake Superior Iron District, the majority of which (88 plants) were located in the Mesabi Range. Many of these facilities were removed from the landscape decades ago, making historical research necessary to identify their locations and the waste they produced (Figure 4).

Figure 4: The massive Trout Lake concentrator in 1947, and its absence today. The facility was removed from the landscape around 1980, making it challenging to connect where all of the waste in the area originated.

Locating these plants allowed us to pinpoint where tailings were created, and analyze how each phase of mining compared in terms of waste production. To calculate the annual production of tailings from these plants, we needed to tie the mines that were producing low-grade ores to the plants that were processing it. To quantify the tons of tailings produced at these plants, we again consulted archival material, which contained production statistics and ratios, which we applied to the ore shipment data to populate the annual tailings production at each processing plant.

Our HGIS now allows us to identify where and when tailings were produced across the mining landscape, and the technologies used to create them. Overlaying these data atop of modern aerial imagery, helps identify the facilities and individual mining companies most likely responsible for the massive waste landscape apparent today (Figure 5). This approach can help the public and land managers not only understand the complex history of mine waste, but also develop strategies for managing the waste, or deploy environmental measures to reclaim and rehabilitate the landscape. This is but one example of how environmental history can be used to address contemporary concerns related to industrial pollution, and illustrates how historical research can inform modern policy and decision-making.

Figure 5: Processing plants and their digitized waste footprint. Arrows indicate the location of the Minntac concentrator (depicted in photo top left) and its waste footprint (aerial image bottom right).

Failed mining technologies have produced three of the largest environmental disasters in the past three years – at Mount Polley, at Gold King, and finally at Bento Rodriguez. Disasters like these will undoubtedly increase with global climate change. Approaches in environmental history coupled with geospatial tools, such as an HGIS, can help land managers and the public identify the source and content of mine waste found within historical mining landscapes, which can lead to the development of an adaptive framework to manage this waste before disaster strikes.

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John Baeten

Postdoctoral Fellow, Instructor, Director of the Historical Landscapes Lab. at Indiana University
I am an interdisciplinary social scientist, with a background in archaeology, geography, and environmental history. I study the historical process behind the the development, abandonment, and restoration of extractive landscapes. My current research is focused on the interrelated histories of subsurface tiling and swamp drainage in the Cornbelt. I direct the Historical Landscapes Laboratory at Indiana University where undergraduate research assistants are diligently reconstructing Indiana's historical environment from General Land Office field notes. I'm an avid runner, gardener, record collector, and new dad.


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