Seeing Mines: Introducing ‘Mountains in My Body’, a Book Project
By Kati Standefer
In which the author traces the supply chain of her internal cardiac defibrillator, wrestling with the complications inherent in a global economy, including the environmental costs of technology.
These are the details about Questa I have never forgotten: The hair of the children turned white. Their fingernails streaked white. White blobs poured from the faucets. On windy days, dried tailings whipped into dust clouds that blinded the valley, settling over town. Eyes and throats burned. The dried-up and bleached carcasses of cattle appeared on lawns. And after spill after spill, the Red River was declared dead.
This was my first mine, a molybdenum pit in northern New Mexico, where Chevron’s Molycorp was scrabbling with the EPA over cleanup. On a warm October day in my junior year of college, my environmental justice class drove south from Colorado Springs to the New Mexico border. We met with activists in a dry schoolyard in the center of tiny Questa. The wind twisted and gusted that day, slapping us with dried leaves, and we retreated into a small classroom where it was quieter.
In Questa, the mine had been operating since the 1920s—underground, then in an open pit, then back underground when prices dropped. After milling the rock to extract the metal, Molycorp mixed the remaining crushed rock with water and ran it eight miles down the canyon as a slurry, depositing it in a giant tailings field on the other side of town. In the meantime, unmilled waste rock languished in the gaping pit, reacting with rainwater to form pools of sulfuric acid.
Here, I learned for the first time how many things could go wrong. Pipes ruptured, tailings flooded the river, heavy metals leached into the groundwater. One year the dust storms coming off the tailings were so blinding, the state championship baseball game was called off. The dust was determined to contain lead, zinc, cadmium, arsenic, mercurcy.
This was 2005. I don’t remember what the individual activists looked like, or even how many spoke to us that day. I just remember staring out the window at the browned landscape, the last yellow leaves pulling off cottonwoods, thinking in ways I had never thought before.
What struck me most was this: after years of cutbacks, the mine was now increasing production again because of the Iraq War. Tanks, planes, Humvees—military operations require steel, lots of it, and steel requires alloys like molybdenum.
Like many college students, I was dubious about war’s ability to get much done in general, and agitated by the Iraq War in particular. But I’d never thought about the way war used resources. I’d never thought about government contracts, orders faxed from the Department of Defense, prices on metal rising because we needed weapons and ways to deliver them. I’d never thought about toxic mines suddenly becoming profitable again, re-opening. I had thought about what tanks and planes did to human bodies, but I’d never imagined that long before a plane dropped its bomb, the making of the aircraft could have already caused damage to human bodies—this time, on home ground.
In the Midwestern strip mall suburb where I grew up, the origins of metal were invisible. Some Saturdays in elementary school, my mom put me on the train in Arlington Heights and 45 minutes later my dad met me on foot in Chicago, where the skyscrapers seemed to sprout spontaneously from the ground. The last ten minutes of the ride the wheels groaned against the tracks, the train slowing, the buildings clustering closer, now closer still, metal latticed bridges visible on the river, brick and bolts holding the place together. I took for granted all this metal framework, the way the cranes spun giant beams a quarter-mile up in the air.
My dad and I would buy a sack of soft tacos and eat them on the plastic tables of the train station food court, each of us uncurling the flour tortillas first to spread hot sauce over the meat. Then we would leave the Ogilvie Transportation Center, with its metal spiderwebbed front, and cross busy Madison to his office at 10 S. Riverside Plaza. We rode the elevators high into the Chicago skyline. Sometimes while he worked I sat on a raised white metal vent against the long glass pane that formed most of his northern wall. I looked down over the busy intersections, bobbling with the dots of pedestrians, or stared out at the murky Chicago River.
Behind me my father, a corporate attorney, scrutinized contracts with suppliers, or reviewed notes from the EPA. The company he worked for owned manufacturing companies. On the South Side, the Verson plant made giant stamping presses for car manufacturers, and so we drove new Chryslers purchased on discount. Over spring break, when we drove west across the plains in our wood-paneled minivan, Dad pointed out tractors as we passed. “Look, there’s a White New Idea!” “Check out that Bush Hog!” We rolled our eyes, but in his office I played with the small toy-sized tractors that lined his bookshelves, rolling their wheels over the carpet—the room, and my life, held up on an invisible skeleton of metal.
The problem with shutting the mine down in Questa is, of course, that it provides jobs. For many years, the mine was the largest single employer in Taos County. The jobs paid well, in a struggling agricultural area, and when mineworkers bought things—boots at the feed store, tacos at the cantina—it made more jobs. Anchored the town. And so the same thing that turned hair white is what kept the gas stations open, and that is complicated.
These days, the mine is down to a skeleton crew. The Family Dollar is thriving, longtime activist and writer Ernie Atencio tells me, but many of the other storefronts are empty. The town slumps into disrepair. It’s cheaper to buy molybdenum in South America and Asia, where the environmental regulations are looser, and this drives down prices worldwide. The mine limps on at a fraction of its peak. Still, it is open, which is enough to stall the reclamation process that some hope will eventually provide a different kind of work boom.
After Questa, I began to notice mines everywhere I went in the West: faraway gashes in mountainsides in Nevada’s Basin and Range. The glinting tailing piles along the highway in Leadville, Colorado. The fenced-off former uranium grounds near central Wyoming’s South Pass. Because I loved open space, I shared territory with mines, stumbled across their poorly vegetated reclamation areas. We inhabited the same scrappy red-dirt corners, and because I loved these places, it was hard not to see the pits, the gauges, the miles of secret, toxic, collapsing tunnels, as wounds on a body. Yet I remembered another lesson I’d learned at Questa: though the mine re-opened to make metal for war, the ore would go toward wheelchairs and mountain bikes, too.
A few weeks ago my parents and uncle visited me at my home in Tucson, Arizona, and we drove down to Bisbee for the day. An old copper mining town, the pit in Bisbee has been closed since the 70s, but you can pull into a wide lot on the side of the highway to stare down through chainlink into the bottom of the pit.
The pit occupies more than 300 acres and is 900 feet deep. In the early and late parts of the day, the steep reddish-purple sides of the pit deepen in color, a gorgeous hot kind of maroon, and the slag at the bottom glints a rusty orange, flanked by waves of what looks like ash. Sometimes water pools at the base of the pit, a clear, beautiful dark blue color—inevitably toxic, the rain and rock making sulfuric acid again. Benches carved into the pit’s sides are disintegrating now, nearly 40 years later, and the effect is post-apocalyptic.
I don’t know why it never occurred to me that my parents hadn’t seen an open-pit mine before. Though they have visited me in all my various homes across the west—Colorado, Wyoming, Arizona—we have tended to seek out shaded forests, paths beneath the Flatirons, sage fields of bison. We’ve tended to drink beer in breweries and shop in mountain towns. Not to visit mines.
We spent a long time gazing over the edge. My parents asked question after question. How many mines like this were there? Were there copper mines in other states? Did mines for other minerals look like this? Were they all this big? Why was it closed? Were the people living in Bisbee at risk?
We piled back into the car, ready for lunch. As the road wound along the mine’s edge, my mom looked back over at the purple rock. “It’s almost beautiful,” she said. And yes, in a complicated way, it was.
Kati Standefer is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of Arizona, where she teaches composition and creative writing. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming from Camas, The High Country News, Edible Baja Arizona, and Essay Daily. She is hard at work on a book that traces the supply chain of her internal cardiac defibrillator, from which this contribution is excerpted.
Header photo, the author’s internal cardiac defibrillator, courtesy Kati Standefer.