Review of McNeill and Vrtis, Mining North America

Hull–Rust–Mahoning Open Pit Iron Mine from mine overlook, Hibbing, Minnesota, USA. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

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Environmental mining history tends toward isolationism: mining usually takes place on the edges of human geography, differs significantly depending on its product, and has traditionally served as part of the ideological apparatus of national foundation myths in Mexico, the United States, and Canada. Considering these challenges, John McNeill and George Vrtis curate an impressively coherent collection of essays in Mining North America: An Environmental History since 1522. This book successfully synthesises existing themes of the discipline while offering fresh insights from the front lines of the field. Unfortunately, the individual contributions struggle to get beyond their case studies, to the detriment of this book’s transnational mandate.

Mining North America boasts a strong list of contributors including new and emerging scholars in the field of mining and environmental history. Some of the most valuable essays include the compact chapter-length contributions from the front lines of mining and environmental history. For example, Jessica Van Horssen’s chapter “Quebec Asbestos: Triumph and Collapse, 1879-1983” builds on arguments from her recently released A Town Called Asbestos: Environmental Contamination, Health, and Resilience in a Resource Community. Similarly, Sandlos and Keeling’s contribution “The Giant Mine’s Long Shadow: Arsenic Pollution and Native People in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories” captures much of their recent research and work on mining, reclamation, and environmental justice in Northern Canada (see Mining and Communities in Northern Canada: History, Politics, and Memory).

For those who have already read Van Horssen and Sandlos and Keeling, there are plenty of fresh insights in this collection. For example, mining’s complicated relationship with the conservation movement gets fresh treatment in Vrtis’ “A World of Mines and Mills: Precious-Metals Mining, Industrialization, and the Nature of the Colorado Front Range.” The link between conservation (roughly conceived) and mining appeared as early as 1959 (Robert Kelley’s Grain Versus Gold) and has been occasionally re-imagined by historians like Andrew Isenburg in the decades since. Building on these foundations, Vrtis shares some staggering environmental data from his Colorado case study: in 1870, Gilpin County stamp mills lost between 423 and 438 pounds of highly toxic mercury per month into the local environment during normal operations (88). Vrtis points out that people paid attention to such flagrant environmental damage even in the earliest days of mining. They understood the finite nature of gold and advocated the careful management of American landscapes. They even self-consciously compared their own mining problems to those in Australia, Canada, Mexico, and Europe.

Steven Hoffman’s “If the Rivers Ran South: Tar Sands and the State of the Canadian Nation” is a must-read for environmental historians and historians of Canada. Hoffman masterfully encapsulates the inherent connections between extraction, politics, power, and environment. Pipelines exist to strengthen Canada’s position on an international oil market, yet oil ambitions are incompatible with government commitments around reconciliation and climate change. The result is that pipelines require “a recalibration of the relations between Aboriginal citizens and the Canadian majority, and the rewriting of roughly forty years of Canadian environmental policy” (340). Explained so clearly by Hoffman, the entangled history of humans and tar sands in Canada offers powerful insight for modern pipeline conflicts.

The explanatory power of Nancy Langston’s “Iron Mines, Toxicity, and Indigenous Communities in the Lake Superior Basin” lies in her balanced and empathetic treatment of different stake-holders in her Lake Superior case study. Langston beautifully conveys the complexity of environmental decision-making on mining landscapes, arguing that “decisions about mine permitting are not purely scientific or technical decisions; they are also social decisions” in which memory, colonialism, and relative power play a significant role (334). The debates coming out of legal battles in the basin beg questions of risk versus benefit, the racial politics of “sacrifice zones,” and how mining’s human and environmental costs should be distributed.

Mining North America’s geographical, temporal, and topical breadth (everything from gold to oil) means it could easily be read as a disciplinary primer for North American mining and environmental history. Yet this book falls just short of being the transnational collection the discipline needed. Most chapters remain disappointingly siloed. To be fair, environmental historians of mining are fighting on dual fronts when it comes to thinking transnationally. Even as mining history has served as part of state-based foundation myths, environmental history has exhibited a strong attachment to place-based case studies. The result is a collection of essays which work together only incidentally on the large scale.

The silo effect is amplified by the book’s organisation. Mining North America moves simultaneously through time and space: from 1522 to the present, from South to North. The United States is physically and temporally at the centre of this book (Canadian readers might be disappointed to find their history relegated to the last few chapters and the last few years of industrial mining and associated campaigns for environmental justice). By simultaneously moving through time and space, the contributors missed the opportunity to reflect on contemporaneous events happening across multiple states.

There are exceptions, including Robynne Mellor’s “A Comparative Case Study of Uranium Mine and Mill Tailings Regulation in Canada and the United States.” Mellor argues that Canada and the United States experienced comparable injustices and poor regulatory measures related to uranium mining, yet differences in human, geological, and corporate structures account for different public responses (271-272). However, the real value of her piece lies in showing that the United States was not alone in its regulatory failure, that environmental injustice could be a transnational experience, and that there are useful comparisons to be made between the ways that governments (and their populations) handled Cold War resource demands.

Taken together, an alert reader can pull from this collection a useful set of themes and tools for thinking transnationally. Within the book’s three parts (capitalism, industrialisation, and environmental justice), most chapters also describe technological and ideological “revolutions” in mining which allowed extraction to overcome immediate environmental limits by transferring environmental risk to new people and new environments. Several authors use mine “ecology” as way of describing the way extraction permeates existing human and environmental communities. Other themes include waste, deforestation, the unplanned nature of the industry, human inability to accurately predict risk, the idea of “necessary” sacrifice, and the power of grass-roots activism. Even though Mining North America’s case studies rarely manage to transcend national borders, these themes suggest avenues for future work on North American mining environments.

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Mica Jorgenson

PhD Candidate at McMaster University
I am a PhD Candidate at McMaster University studying global gold mining, industrialisation, and landscape change. My dissertation uses the Porcupine gold rush in Northern Ontario as a case study for the ways that international forces can shape human relationships with a local environment. Twitter: @mica_amy

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