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The mother lode of contaminated sites
September 2, 2010 2:45 PM   Subscribe

NASA once sent a robot in - and nobody ever saw the machine again or collected any scientific data from it...

The Iron Mountain Mine, outside of Redding, is a hellish pit where acid water sloshes against your boots, greenish bacterial slime gurgles out of the walls, and stalactites and stalagmites of acid salt, copper and iron jut out like rusty daggers.

The low pH level and the heavy metal contamination from the mine have caused the virtual elimination of aquatic life in sections of Slickrock Creek, Boulder Creek, and Spring Creek.

Chemistry textbooks usually describe pH values as ranging from 0 to 14, with 7 being neutral. Values of pH near 0 are highly acidic, becoming less acidic and more alkaline at the higher numbers. Because pH is measured on a logarithmic scale, each declining unit represents 10 times more acidity. Alpers said several of the drip-water samples at Iron Mountain had pH values below zero, indicating hydrogen ion activities greater than one. The lowest pH found at the site was -3.6.

On the upside, it has colorful slime, weird bacteria, and rocks that burst into flame!
posted by rtha (70 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite

 
"In 1988, a sudden surge of power at a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation plant sent 2,000 cubic feet per second of metal-laden water flowing out of the Keswick Reservoir, turning the Sacramento River red all the way to Hamilton City, 100 miles away."
posted by gingerbeer at 2:51 PM on September 2, 2010



NASA once sent a robot in - and nobody ever saw the machine again or collected any scientific data from it...


Poor robot. :( I bet he's pretty hurt about that.
posted by Stagger Lee at 2:52 PM on September 2, 2010


I'm curious about what was happening inside the mountain for the time prior to the mine being dug. Did all that stuff in there do nothing because it wasn't exposed to air and water? What would happen if they just filled it all back in with earth and rock?

(Bear with me, I went to public schools in Utah)
posted by mr_crash_davis mark II: Jazz Odyssey at 2:57 PM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


I smell a new Pixar project in the works!
posted by spock at 2:57 PM on September 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


"(Bare with me, I went to public schools in Utah)" would have been funnier.
posted by spock at 2:58 PM on September 2, 2010


I have a chunk of pyrite. It just sits there. Why does this particular instance create such toxic horribleness, but the thing I have sitting on a shelf doesn't?
posted by hippybear at 3:01 PM on September 2, 2010


I just read about this in an Azimov anthology the other night. First thing they need to do is chuck carbonic acid nearby so that the robot moves away from the resulting cloud. When that doesn't work, one of the people will have to go in there in the middle of it all so that the First Law will kick in, causing the robot to save the guy and then move away from all of the selenium it was sent out to gather.
posted by jquinby at 3:06 PM on September 2, 2010 [13 favorites]


"What's different about this pH scale?"
"It goes all the way to -4!"
posted by fuq at 3:09 PM on September 2, 2010 [5 favorites]


hippybear: Pyrite exposed to the atmosphere during mining and excavation reacts with oxygen and water to form sulfate, resulting in acid mine drainage. This acidity results from the action of Acidithiobacillus bacteria, which generate their energy by oxidizing ferrous iron (Fe2+) to ferric iron (Fe3+) using oxygen. The ferric iron in turn attacks the pyrite to produce ferrous iron and sulfate. The ferrous iron is then available for oxidation by the bacterium; this cycle continues until the pyrite is depleted.

I feel bad for the robot, too.

Or I will until the self-made acid robot army comes marching out of the mine...
posted by rtha at 3:10 PM on September 2, 2010 [9 favorites]


rtha: I get all that... I guess I still don't understand why the chunk of glittery stuff sitting on my desk isn't doing exactly that. What is it about pyrite which is underground which makes it reactively different from what has been buried and then exposed?
posted by hippybear at 3:15 PM on September 2, 2010


hippybear, have you tried putting your rock in your backyard near a lot of other iron pyrite?
posted by mikeh at 3:17 PM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


After a mine is abandoned, it fills up with water, making the nasty byproducts more mobile. There just isn't that much water in the atmosphere to leach the nastiness out of the rock sitting on your desk.
posted by wierdo at 3:20 PM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Our main goal at the EPA was to protect the Sacramento River," Sugarek said. "A ton a day of copper and zinc used to hit the river. We have been able to reduce that to 2 percent of what it once was."

Before the creeping acid was contained, it was as bad for the environment as 100 oil refineries pouring petroleum into a salmon spawning stream would have been, Sugarek said.


So now it's only as bad as 2 oil refineries pouring petroleum into a salmon spawning stream? Well, that's reassuring.
posted by verstegan at 3:22 PM on September 2, 2010 [6 favorites]


"It is great to see that we can get back to a place where the water again runs clear. If you can clean up the Iron Mountain Mine, you can clean up anything."
Yes, great! Except...
The problem is that the toxic broth will continue pouring out of the mine for 3,000 years until the pyrite is used up or someone figures out a way to neutralize the chemical and biological reactions, scientists say.
My definition of "cleaned up" seems to be missing something.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:24 PM on September 2, 2010


so, it's an immersed-in-water difference, then?

Okay, I'll just never wash that particular rock again.
posted by hippybear at 3:24 PM on September 2, 2010


The more I read about environmental disasters, the more I want to read. They have a certain sublime quality that make good stories. Usually it involves irresponsible negligence of unbelievable proportions, innocent people and animals suffering, average citizens who rise up and take on the man becoming heroes, politicians and business leaders who conspire to hush it up, court cases that last multiple decades. Lots of old fashioned goods guys versus bad guys. Minamata, Japan; Seveso, Italy; Love Canal, New York; Times Beach, Missouri; Bhopal, India; Rhine River, Switzerland (1986); just a few greatest hits.

I'd never heard of Iron Mountain Mine so thanks for this, there's no doubt a lot more to the history of it that must be fascinating; how did they get these companies to agree to pay such huge sums (no doubt they resisted), who were the local heroes who first started a campaign to close the mine (not a popular move in the 50s and 60s), what people and animals were hurt by the mine, how long did the owners know about it beforehand and continue to operate the mine anyway, etc.. it would make a good story.
posted by stbalbach at 3:25 PM on September 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


Interesting on many counts. My family used to go to a cabin in the high Sierras near a nice lake. There were little pieces of pyrite in the stream beds, sparkling in the sand. It looked more like this than the last picture here. Chemistry!
posted by filthy light thief at 3:35 PM on September 2, 2010


so, it's an immersed-in-water difference, then?

I think it's that, plus the presence of other metals (copper, zinc), plus probably a lot more than one rock's worth of pyrite.
posted by rtha at 3:38 PM on September 2, 2010


ALL THESE MINES ARE YOURS EXCEPT IRON MOUNTAIN
posted by Ratio at 3:42 PM on September 2, 2010 [6 favorites]


Save the robots! (They're expensive.)
posted by filthy light thief at 4:03 PM on September 2, 2010


What would happen if they just filled it all back in with earth and rock?

You have to think about it in terms of the mountain being a homogenous mass, now with holes and tunnels bored into it. It would be prohibitively expensive to try and fill all that space, not to mention its going to be impossible to pack it tightly enough to mimic the native pore spaces that keep the reactions between air, water, and minerals in check. Treatment of the effluent is (in theory) the easiest way.

This may be the "biggest" acid mine drainage site in California, but there are literally thousands of smaller abandoned mines hidden away in the mountains that contribute this stuff unchecked to streams and creeks.
posted by Big_B at 4:03 PM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


Save Ferrous!
posted by Mcable at 4:06 PM on September 2, 2010 [6 favorites]


My money's on Balrog.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 4:13 PM on September 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


Never has it been more appropriate that awful and awesome both start with awe.
posted by localroger at 4:19 PM on September 2, 2010


I'm going to take a wild guess that the former owners of the mine all got pretty darn wealthy and not one cent of that wealth has been spent on efforts of cleaning this mess up.
posted by maxwelton at 4:27 PM on September 2, 2010 [3 favorites]


maxwelton: you can't expect companies to be responsible for their actions - that's Socialism!
posted by adamsc at 4:34 PM on September 2, 2010 [10 favorites]


Well, actually, the article says

A federal court recently held the owner of the mountain, Ted Arman, and Iron Mountain Mines Inc. liable for nearly $27 million in past cleanup costs and some $30 million in interest accrued over the years. The former owner, Rhône-Poulenc, which later became Aventis CropScience USA Inc., agreed to pay the federal government $154 million over 30 years in future cleanup costs.

But if you mean the personal wealth of the company big wigs, then yeah, I dare say you're right.
posted by Slyfen at 4:37 PM on September 2, 2010 [3 favorites]


Okay, I did read the article and didn't see anything about how a NASA robot could just disappear. Apologies if I missed it. But is the idea the robot dissolved in the ick?
posted by angrycat at 4:40 PM on September 2, 2010


I smell a new Pixar project in the works!

I think it's the next Doom scenario!
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:41 PM on September 2, 2010


rtha: I get all that... I guess I still don't understand why the chunk of glittery stuff sitting on my desk isn't doing exactly that.

It's because evaporation in your building happens faster than runoff, and you don't have the perfect conditions to allow for a nice colony of bio-leaching bacteria to exist on your pyrite. Heap leaching of pyrite has been done for centuries to collect sulfuric acid. It's basically crushed ore left in a pile in the rain, or more often now, under irrigation. The runoff is then collected.

The bacteria would deplete the available oxygen in still water, and then the process would stop, and the bacateria would die. You need consistent oxygen along with the water, plus runoff.
posted by oneirodynia at 4:42 PM on September 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


More than you ever wanted to know about acid rock drainage about acid rock drainage...
posted by mikelieman at 4:42 PM on September 2, 2010


Wow... The acid must be good... My kingdom for an edit window!
posted by mikelieman at 4:43 PM on September 2, 2010


angrycat: I tried answering your question, failed so far, but found this tale of a (partly)-naturally-occuring analogue:

A bright red river meanders through the countryside of southwestern Spain, its water acidic enough to eat through metal. Such an image brings to mind the worst excesses of industrial pollution, and scientists long assumed that a local copper mine had contaminated the Tinto River.

Mining activity at the Tinto River dates back at least 5,000 years, and while it has altered the river it is not solely responsible for the river’s conditions. Acid rock drainage is a natural process that occurs when water, oxygen, and bacteria interact with sulfide minerals, producing highly acidic solutions. The Tinto River runs through the Iberian Pyritic Belt, one of the biggest complex sulfide formations in the world (pyrite, or iron sulfide (FeS2), is also known as ‘fool’s gold’).

Ricardo Amils ... says the water’s red color and average pH of 2 is due to this natural abundance of sulfide...

posted by Slyfen at 4:46 PM on September 2, 2010


Great location for a rave. Aceeeeeeeeeeeed!

I winder if the pink acid-loving slime would do well on Venus.
posted by Artw at 5:07 PM on September 2, 2010


I'm in Elliot Lake right now, once the uranium capital of Canada. It has flooded mine tailings with high pyrite levels and radioactivity - woohoo!
posted by scruss at 5:46 PM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


I always wondered about that acid that makes up the blood of that monster from Alien. For it to bleed and make holes in the ship, does it have to have extremely low pH or extreme corrosive properties, like HF?
posted by crapmatic at 6:04 PM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Over the past year, workers dredged much of the 170,000 cubic yards of copper, cadmium, zinc and iron that had flowed out of the mine and accumulated for 50 years at the bottom of the Spring Creek arm of the Keswick Reservoir. The sediments were piped up to a newly built treatment facility that separated out the solids and neutralized the toxic metals, which were then dried out and secured in pits on nearby federal land."

If only the effluent from this mountain contained some valuable metals that could be sold on the market to recoup the costs of containing the ecological disaster; why did we have to get all this worthless zinc, copper and cadmium.
posted by humanfont at 6:07 PM on September 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


Heh, I was just about to add this. Here's some more links:

The damp, dark passage ... was nothing compared with the hellish alien environment deeper inside the mine. There, chemical reactions drive temperatures up to 130 degrees, the water is almost pure sulfuric acid, and stalactites and stalagmites of acid salt cover the walls. (pics) (video)

Dealing with the site is an ongoing problem [video] because the acid eats through the collection mechanisms. The mine will be drooling acid for three thousand years.
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:14 PM on September 2, 2010


Also if only there were some way during the neutralization of a highly acidic solution one could generate electricity. Someone should really figure out how to do that.
posted by humanfont at 6:25 PM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oh yes - and here's the PDF of the EPA case study. It's well worth reading - it even has a picture of a partially-dissolved shovel!
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:26 PM on September 2, 2010


Alpers said several of the drip-water samples at Iron Mountain had pH values below zero, indicating hydrogen ion activities greater than one. The lowest pH found at the site was -3.6.

Wait a minute. One Liter of water contains 1000 g of water. 1 Mole of water contains 18 g of water. Ergo, 1 Liter of water contains 55.6 moles of water. pH is the negative log of the Hydronium concentration. Hydronium is H3O+. A water molecule with an extra hydrogen glommed onto the oxygen.

To get a pH of -3.6 you would have to cram 10^3.6 moles of hydronium into a liter. That's a 3981 M solution. Your one liter of VERY CONCENTRATED hydronium ions would weigh in at 75,640 kg! I smell wild assed extrapolation!

Yep.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:29 PM on September 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


Great location for a rave. Aceeeeeeeeeeeed!

Heh, that reminds me. I was out at a desert party many moons ago, and a friend and I had been scouting around the area on foot and truck looking for a site in the area to throw our own party at a later date. He said he had found something awesome and wanted to know what I thought about the spot.

It was a relatively shallow but high-walled and very dry pit about 10-15 feet deep and maybe about 100x200 feet wide or so, sandy, obviously man made and with an odd greenish and salty tinge. It would have been an awesome place to set up a sound system and dance floor.

Except we were in old gold/silver mining country in the deep Mojave not far from Death Valley and Trona Pinnacles - a classic picture-perfect Old West mining area complete with old timber-shored mine shafts, rusty old hoist rigs, shot up tin cans among the cacti and creosotes.

I pointed out that we were probably standing in a old cyanide leaching pit or runoff/tailing holding pond. I don't think I even finished saying "cyanide" before he was high-tailing it out of the pit.
posted by loquacious at 6:36 PM on September 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


You know what else hase a negative PH balance, is a biological slime, and lives in abandoned ruins inside a mountain?

Shoggoths.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:58 PM on September 2, 2010 [7 favorites]


The Mitigation of Acid Rock Drainage: Four Case Studies from British Columbia (.pdf) is fascinating and not so technical that I can't understand it. From what I've read, the sites it discusses are not as catastrophically terrible as Iron Mountain, however.

One of the interesting things it does is lay out at least some of the costs of mitigation and cleanup, and it is not cheap.

humanfont, I've spent the last hour or so googling around for more technical stuff on this subject, and I haven't seen anything yet about using the minerals (selling them, whatever) that are at these kinds of sites. My google-fu is weak here, and I'm sure I'm not using some terms correctly, or at all.

I suspect that maybe, just maybe, the people who specialize in cleanups of this nature could perhaps - just maybe! - have considered your If only the effluent from this mountain contained some valuable metals that could be sold on the market to recoup the costs of containing the ecological disaster; why did we have to get all this worthless zinc, copper and cadmium as well as your Also if only there were some way during the neutralization of a highly acidic solution one could generate electricity. Someone should really figure out how to do that.

These are not questions that require in-depth knowledge of acid rock drainage mitigation; they're two versions of "What are we going to do with this shit?"

I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that recovering useable minerals and generating electricity from the acid have been considered, and that they're not technologically feasible for some reason (location of the mine, existence of necessary infrastructure in what are generally off-the-beaten-track sites, etc.), or they are, but would cost so much to put into place that it would raise the overall cost of the mitigation, and you'd end up losing money.
posted by rtha at 7:04 PM on September 2, 2010


Wait a minute. One Liter of water contains 1000 g of water. 1 Mole of water contains 18 g of water. Ergo, 1 Liter of water contains 55.6 moles of water. pH is the negative log of the Hydronium concentration. Hydronium is H3O+. A water molecule with an extra hydrogen glommed onto the oxygen.

To get a pH of -3.6 you would have to cram 10^3.6 moles of hydronium into a liter. That's a 3981 M solution. Your one liter of VERY CONCENTRATED hydronium ions would weigh in at 75,640 kg! I smell wild assed extrapolation!

Yep.


Could you explain that a bit more? Because the linked paper says the pH is -3.6.

Is it a different method of working out pH? Or is the paper wild and assy?
posted by Sebmojo at 7:27 PM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


Reminds me of the Berkeley Pit, talked about in a (as usual) great Radiolab segment.
posted by kmz at 7:29 PM on September 2, 2010


Remember boys and girls.. this is the big bad EPA that is trying to destrory the future of our children by taxing them for clean air and water...

(this didn't come out as well as it was in my head)
posted by MrLint at 7:29 PM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


Kid Charlemagne : "pH is the negative log of the Hydronium concentration."

As wikipedia puts it, pH "approximates but is not equal to p[H], the negative logarithm (base 10) of the molar concentration of dissolved hydronium ions". At the very least, if you base it H3O+, you're discounting the possibility of free H+ ions.

The linked article actually has a reasonable explanation as to why pH < 0 occurs in this case, and it's not just measurement / equipment error. "We suggest the unusual water compositions found at Iron Mountain are dominated by pyrite oxidation (with waters at or near to melanterite saturation) and by evaporative concentration to give pH values less than zero."

Basically, you've got lots of free H+ ions 'cos the pyrites scavenges all the available O- ions in an oxygen-starved environment.
posted by Pinback at 7:54 PM on September 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


if only the government would get out of the way and let the free market take care of it...
posted by TrialByMedia at 7:59 PM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


Okay. So. 130-degree temperatures, sulfuric acid, burning rocks, deep in the ground...
Portal to Hell?
posted by Mister Moofoo at 8:03 PM on September 2, 2010


I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that recovering useable minerals and generating electricity from the acid have been considered, and that they're not technologically feasible for some reason (location of the mine, existence of necessary infrastructure in what are generally off-the-beaten-track sites, etc.), or they are, but would cost so much to put into place that it would raise the overall cost of the mitigation, and you'd end up losing money.

Or maybe I'm some savant who has considered a novel approach to the problem. Oh sure i'm probably like those lunatics who went on TV with crazy plans to clean up the oil spill; but until Google turns up some meaningful document, or a chemical engineer or mine reclamation engineer emerges to smack me down I'm going to stand behind the truthiness of my statements.
posted by humanfont at 8:05 PM on September 2, 2010


I think the salient bit from Kid Charlemagne's link is this (emphasis mine):
The pH measurements were obtained by using the Pitzer method to define pH for calibration of glass membrane electrodes. The calibration of pH below 0.5 with glass membrane electrodes becomes strongly nonlinear but is reproducible to a pH as low as −4.
In other words, they're using a "pH" scale that, in the region of interest, doesn't closely track what you'd normally call pH, but it is reproducible and they tell you what their terms mean, so it's scientifically useful. It seems kind of misleading to quote the -3.6 pH value without the context indicating that it's a specialized use.
posted by hattifattener at 8:06 PM on September 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


Or maybe I'm some savant who has considered a novel approach to the problem.

Well, anything is possible.

I'm not a geologist, or a chemist, or a geochemist, or a mining engineer. I don't know how much you know about mineral mining. I don't know much, but I know a lot more than I did five hours ago.

You're content to think you're right, I guess; you don't seem to feel the need to poke around in the literature and find a glossary (.pdf) to help figure out the specific language and jargon of this field.

But, it seems, recovery of minerals has been/is being studied, even if only to figure out how to make the sludge less toxic/easier to store.

This is a cleanup site. The mine isn't active anymore, because the mine is tapped out and minerals left in the tailings are too expensive to extract (at least, so say the mining companies).
For a typical Copper mine, one ton of waste rock can contain several pounds of copper, five ounces of zinc, three ounces of lead, and two ounces of arsenic. On average, the earth's crust has background levels of about 2 ppm of arsenic.
Maybe you have a great out-of-the-box idea that's never occurred to a mining engineer about how to profitably extract these metals from the waste while continuing the cleanup with all possible speed and safety. Please let us know.
posted by rtha at 8:37 PM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


"There is nothing that we have in the world today that solves this particular dilemma,"

That's the spirit!

Wow. Nothing? That is depressing.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 8:58 PM on September 2, 2010


Wait, maybe I've forgotten some very basic chemistry here but... how the hell do you determine the molarity of water, given that molarity is usually grams per liters of...water. Or, yes, some other solvent (ethanol, DMSO, DF, etc), but what do you dissolve water in?! I feel like molarity of water is like a divide by 0/0 or e=i*pi+1 or some such.
posted by maryr at 9:10 PM on September 2, 2010


> But if you mean the personal wealth of the company big wigs, then yeah, I dare say you're right.

You are mistaken. This is not their "personal wealth". They deliberately committed a vast criminal undertaking in order to amass huge profits. The money collected from their criminal company won't even pay for the cleanup, let alone the tremendous human costs borne by the hundreds of thousands of people who have consumed this poison.

This money is no more their "personal wealth" than a bank robber's haul is. They should spend years in jail and lose a multiple of all the money they earned by fouling the environment.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:57 PM on September 2, 2010


It's moles per liter, but it could be a liter of hard vacuum. It basically a measurement of how far apart the molecules of interest are.

With acids and bases the solvent is actually involved, but if you had, say glacial acetic acid (pure CH3COOH - no water) you could still calculate a molarity by figuring out how many grams of the stuff in a liter and and dividing that by it's formula weight.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:33 PM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


lupus... I'm pretty sure slyfen agrees with you, and is saying the companies paid but not the bigwigs.

Wigs.... They get a little size on 'em and they're unaccountable for anything.
posted by flaterik at 10:42 PM on September 2, 2010


Wait, maybe I've forgotten some very basic chemistry here but... how the hell do you determine the molarity of water, given that molarity is usually grams per liters of...water.

Molecular weight of water is roughly 18 grams/mol. There are 1000g or water in a liter. Therefore there are 1000/18 mols of water in a liter. I'm not taking into account isotopes here, but whatever..

Now, you can surely have a pH of less than one. pH=-log[H+]. If the molarity of hydrogen ions is greater than 1, you get into negative pH territory. For example, 12molar HCl (regular lab grade acid) has a pH of -log(12) = -1.08. Normally though people just quote the molarity at these concentrations.
posted by c13 at 10:46 PM on September 2, 2010


So what your saying is you can't just throw a couple of boxes of backing soda on it?
posted by Bonzai at 11:07 PM on September 2, 2010


I'm concerned. I lived awhile up in iron country in northern Wisconsin. Mine tailings are everywhere up there. It appears they have even been used in place of gravel to cover roads. The result is many places where mud puddles are so orange, they look like pools of auto paint primer.

So, what's up, really, with Iron County, Wisconsin? No one seems to pay any mind up there. Piles of mine tailings lay out in the rain, untended. There you will find the deepest iron shaft mine in the world, now all filled with water. Yet, the nearby man-made lake is full of walleye, and it is eaten. The water flows very quickly into Lake Superior. What's happening up there? (of course, the entire county has about 7,000 people, so maybe no one really cares).
posted by Goofyy at 2:06 AM on September 3, 2010


You are mistaken. This is not their "personal wealth".

Well, so long as we're talking about how that's defined by them, the company, the law, the IRS, the banks, most of the world in general, actually it is.

They deliberately committed a vast criminal undertaking in order to amass huge profits... This money is no more their "personal wealth" than a bank robber's haul is.

It appears you want to redefine what is or isn't personal wealth according to your own morality judgement of what should or shouldn't be personal wealth. As it happens, morality-wise, I rather agree with you. But in the interests of clear communication, I'd rather say "(1) this is their wealth, (2) which they shouldn't in fact have because they got it via foul means", than redefine a word as basic as 'their'.

So, cute rhetorical point-scoring aside, I do not believe I am "mistaken".
posted by Slyfen at 3:06 AM on September 3, 2010


Goofyy, this is a report (.pdf) on ARD in Wisconsin.

And hey, the slime in the mine (Ferroplasma acidarmanus) was discovered in 1990 at Iron Mountain by a scientist from Wisconsin-Madison! More here. I bet you could find out more on the university's website - do they have a mining program? Geology, anyway.
posted by rtha at 5:48 AM on September 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


So... deep caves filled with pits of highly toxic acid, dangerous gas clouds, and creepy bacteria?

Someone should really get some power-ups and go run through there, because if video-games have taught me anything, the cave sections typically have the best treasure/ items.
posted by quin at 7:48 AM on September 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


Slyfen: it's not my "personal judgement" but a matter of law I'm talking about.

As a matter of law, you are generally not allowed to keep the profits you have made from a criminal enterprise. Suppose the owners of this company had made their money through drug dealing, say - would you then describe those profits as "personal wealth"? If so, then we really aren't in dispute - but I'd note to you that the "personal wealth" of drug dealers and other criminals is subject to confiscation by the government.

In general, there is a long-standing principle of law and of moral justice that criminals are not allowed to profit from their criminal activities. We do not refer to the ill-gotten gains of criminals as "personal wealth" for that reason.

Now, the US government does not treat crimes by businessmen with any sort of seriousness. I don't think any rational person reading that article would doubt that the owners of this mine committed a terrible crime, but it seems clear that they got away with it. So if you believe that when criminals get away with their crimes, their "ill-gotten gains" become "personal wealth", then I guess you're consistent.

I do not, however, consider the legality of something to be determined by whether or not a corrupt government chooses to prosecute it or not. I do not consider narcotrafficantes to be honest businessmen, but murderers, even if their local governments do not choose to enforce the law, and I consider their billions to be "ill-gotten gains" not "personal wealth".

In exactly the same fashion, I consider the owners of this mine to be criminals, and the wealth they have accumulated ill-gotten gains. The only consistent way I see to believe this is not the case is to believe that laws that the government chooses not enforce to simply not exist.

(There's of course the additional wrinkle of "innocent until proven guilt" and I have not forgotten that - but both in the case of the narcotrafficantes and the owners of this mine, I'd say that public facts of the case make the guilt an almost certain matter...)
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:15 AM on September 3, 2010


And let me add that in the US, at least, the government claims the right to confiscate the money and property of suspected drug dealers before they are even brought to trial...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:29 AM on September 3, 2010


[do] you believe that when criminals get away with their crimes, their "ill-gotten gains" become "personal wealth" [?]

I think that's pretty much where I'm coming from, yes. Except I don't see those things as either/or, I would see them as both at once: ill-gotten personal wealth.

Unless / until the law directs otherwise, it seems to me that the most natural way of describing money sat in somebody's bank account, paid to them by a company as a salary, share dividends, etc, is being their (personal) money. And as far as I could see from the article, the courts have investigated the company's activities here, and they have not declared that that money be illegal / confiscated.

Again, I'm not necessarily disagreeing with your belief that it should be confiscated, but as far as I can tell, it hasn't been, and until then I'm not going to describe it as if it has.

Also, I think the drug dealer or bank robber analogy is a bit flawed, because drug dealers generally recieve that money personally and directly from their crime, and it was illegal at 'point of acquisition'. In this case it's more like (1) corporation commits crime, (2) corporation earns profit as a result, (3) corporation pays some profits to individuals as salaries.

It looks to me (IANAL, etc) like the courts here found the corporation guilty of the crime (1), and demanded fines/repayment/confiscation from corporate funds (2), but have not gone a step further and delved into those salary payments previously made to individuals (3), which were, in themselves, legal transactions.

This would appear to relate to the doctrine of corporate personhood. Isn't this one of the big reasons why (certain forms of) corporations exist in the first place? To protect individuals from direct liability like that?

And again, I don't necessarily agree with that doctrine, in fact as far as I can tell it's all too often a way for people to get away with murder (figuratively and literally! Bhopal, etc) safe in the knowledge whatever punishment the company may face, they won't answer for anything personally.

But, as far as I can see, whether I agree with that doctrine or not, that's how it stands.

In a similar spirit of pedantry...

I do not, however, consider the legality of something to be determined by whether or not a corrupt government chooses to prosecute it or not.

Forgive me if this sounds flippant, but surely the only reasonable way of defining the legality of something is whether or not it was ruled illegal. Again, this seems to me rather like you conflate legality and morality to suit: if someone does something which any "common sense" view can see was morally wrong and should be illegal, but either no law exists against it, or somehow they are found not guilty on a technicality, can we call that person a criminal? Sure we can, but only metaphorically... Calling them a criminal literally would be factually incorrect. Even if the greater weight of 'truth(iness)' actually lies in the metaphorical meaning. Likewise with this personal wealth thing.

In exactly the same fashion, I consider the owners of this mine to be criminals, and the wealth they have accumulated ill-gotten gains. The only consistent way I see to believe this is not the case is to believe that laws that the government chooses not enforce to simply not exist.

#1, as above I entirely agree with considering wealth resulting from environment raping like this to be "ill-gotten gains". #2, that said, the other way my position comes out consistent is to consider the laws, or the government's choice of enforcement of those laws, to be wrong. Again: "it is [in strict point of fact] their personal wealth, although it shouldn't be [because the govt should take it off them]".

Really, I don't think we disagree on anything except the most hair-splitting semantic pedantry here. If your post had originally said "The fact they even retain their 'personal wealth' in a case like this is offensive. This should not be not their 'personal wealth'. They deliberately..." I wouldn't have piped up. I only argue because it just seemed a bit rum to me to declare my statement as "mistaken" -- a statement which in spirit was intended to roughly support your position! -- by means of carefully redefining the words I used away from how I meant them or how I think most people would think I meant them.

Wow, that got long. Sorry.
posted by Slyfen at 10:17 AM on September 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ah, you can't beat walking to clear up the thoughts. I've just perambulated my way to a much much simpler way of expressing where I'm coming from.

The reason I don't sit comfortably with the statement "That is not their personal wealth" is that it implies to me that confiscation has in fact occured, when the very moral essence of (my|your|our) argument is that it should occur, but it hasn't.
posted by Slyfen at 10:52 AM on September 3, 2010


rtha: "But, it seems, recovery of minerals has been/is being studied, even if only to figure out how to make the sludge less toxic/easier to store."

IAMAGeologist, but I've really only done some grunt work with respect to Acid Mine Drainage (taking samples, doing site assessments, recon type of stuff). The engineers are usually the ones that get involved in the actual remediation stuff, not so much the geologists, due to designing and building of engineered earthworks and structures. Regardless, from my experience and knowledge the main focus is remediation of the problem (i.e. stop the release), and extraction of commodities from the effluent or treatment stream isn't really brought up. I would imagine it would be addressed in the Feasibility Stage of a project. I have seen it used in petroleum contamination sites though, were the recovered mass is used as fuel on site.

With all mining of metals there is a cost to benefit ratio with respect to extraction, and I would think the same would apply to a waste pile. I know of a gravel mine in California that was recently reopened in an attempt to mine diamonds from a waste pile.

I'll query some of the mining folks I used to work with though and see.
posted by Big_B at 7:54 PM on September 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Never fear, the land's owner has a failsafe remediation plan:

"[He] continues to pursue what he calls a personal dream of erecting a 230-foot Italian marble statue of Jesus Christ atop Iron Mountain’s 3,500-foot peak."
posted by subbes at 8:09 AM on September 4, 2010


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