The Waste Lands
September 11, 2013 10:54 AM   Subscribe

Working conditions inside the mine were appalling. The miners had to crawl around in the hot dark stopes on their knees, bent almost double, working in dreadful conditions gouging out the blue asbestos which was in very thin bands in the hard rock…working conditions in the mill were even more appalling than the mine. Milling was a dry process where the ore was ground down and the fibre then extracted. Conditions were so bad that the men needed flood lights to see through the dust at midday. The men worked in these clouds of asbestos dust for hours on end, when only one minute at such concentrations to blue asbestos fibres would have been enough to cause lung cancer or mesothelioma.

A trip through the places humanity has rendered uninhabitable. From Vozrozhdeniya to Wittenoom. The Waste Lands, part 1 and part 2.
posted by themadthinker (28 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
That quoted passage (from 'A publication from the Asbestos Disease Society of Australia') reads a lot like passages from George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier:

The first impression of all, overmastering everything else for a while, is the frightful, deafening din from the conveyor belt which carries the coal away. You cannot see very far, because the fog of coal dust throws back the beam of your lamp, but you can see on either side of you the line of half-naked kneeling men, one to every four or five yards, driving their shovels under the fallen coal and flinging it swiftly over their left shoulders. They are feeding it on to the conveyor belt, a moving rubber, belt a couple of feet wide which runs a yard or two behind them...

It is a dreadful job that they do, an almost superhuman job by the standard of an ordinary person. For they are not only shifting monstrous quantities of coal, they are also doing, it in a position that doubles or trebles the work. They have got to remain kneeling all the while--they could hardly rise from their knees without hitting the ceiling--and you can easily see by trying it what a tremendous effort this means.

posted by fikri at 11:20 AM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

How do you leave messages to a future people who may be teleporting and riding chrome rockets—or living in post-apocalyptic death squads? How do you create a universal symbol for danger?

Trick question. You don't. Nothing is more attractive than a Keep Out sign
posted by IndigoJones at 11:27 AM on September 11, 2013

Shades of Hyperion in the third piece
posted by MangyCarface at 11:33 AM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh my god, the Landscape of Thorns and the Spike Field are something out of a Gene Wolfe novel. Like something Severian would have encountered during his travels.
posted by NoMich at 11:35 AM on September 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

We are ants.
posted by Ardiril at 11:38 AM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

My father was among a group of engineers asked to take a look at the Centralia situation in the mid-60s. I clearly recall him coming home and declaring "well, they have a real mess on their hands." When asked if he felt there was a solution, he shrugged. "Move everyone away." He acknowledged that the good-quality coal in the area, known for burning slow and hot, and the porous nature of the Pennsylvania bedrock, meant that containment was highly unlikely.

Speaking of coal, when I was growing up in the Pittsburgh area it was well known that the hills were pocked with "backyard" coal mines that could collapse at any time. The famous Kennywood Park giant swimming pool had a few leaks caused by collapsing unknown mines.
posted by kinnakeet at 11:41 AM on September 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

Be sure to read the first article in the series, if you're not already scared to death.
posted by tommasz at 11:44 AM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am not sure I would care too much about the safety of any post-apocalyptic death squads.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 11:48 AM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thanks for this horrific evidence of human folly, themadthinker!

Omni Reboot is killing it so far, by the way.
posted by Iridic at 11:50 AM on September 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

In the '40s and '50s my grandfather worked in shipyards on the great lakes, where the dry docks were filled with asbestos fibers used as fire retardants in the hulls of ships. He died of emphysema at an relatively early age. About 30 years later, his daughter (my aunt) was diagnosed with mesothelioma and died shortly thereafter. Fun facts: 1) the only way to get mesothelioma is through inhaling asbestos fibers 2) it's almost certainly going to kill you.

Everyone tries to be polite about asbestos
It’s arguable that during the early days of the mine at Wittenoom in the 30s and 40s, the mining companies weren’t aware of the mineral’s toxicity...
But the mortality rates associated with worker exposure were well-known by the 1940s. The manufacturers of asbestos and the industries that use it simply decided that by the time it killed the miners and shipyard workers, etc. they would be dead or dying anyway. When my aunt died, her sister (my mother) naturally concluded that she was also going to die within ten years. You can imagine how that changed her life... and mine. However, she didn't get cancer. The only explanation we can think of is that it was my aunt who washed her father's clothes when he got home.

Kill one person because it was more convenient than not killing them and you go to jail. Kill 100,000 people or more because economic progress (and profits) demand it and your shareholders pay a penalty 50 years in the future. That's ultimately where the capital for your smartphone app development and social media start-up comes from, the blood of people like my grandfather and his children.
posted by at 11:55 AM on September 11, 2013 [22 favorites]

The highest calling of any form of life is to exterminate all other forms of life, reshape the universe in an image of itself, and then to die.
posted by aramaic at 12:46 PM on September 11, 2013 [3 favorites] "the only way to get mesothelioma is through inhaling asbestos fibers"

That's not true.
posted by schmod at 1:08 PM on September 11, 2013

The highest calling of any form of life is to exterminate all other forms of life, reshape the universe in an image of itself, and then to die.

I can't be the only one that read that comment in this voice.
posted by The Hamms Bear at 2:15 PM on September 11, 2013

I always thought that Range Resources and other fracking companies could score big PR points by putting out Centralia. I know nothing about these things, but if your main business involves pumping great gobs of "water" into the ground at high pressures, it seems like something you could do...
posted by tss at 3:52 PM on September 11, 2013

Could be something from modern day China.

When we went to Hong Kong to check outsourcing and my boss toured some factories: "You know those machines for bending steel plates? Here they got these two sumo sized guys with levers!"
posted by yoHighness at 4:18 PM on September 11, 2013

Do not forget Johns-Manville.
Even in ancient times it was understood that inhaling asbestos dust was very dangerous. A key indication was the short life spans of slaves who mined or worked with asbestos. Modern research has identified several diseases caused by inhalation of asbestos fibers. These include asbestosis, mesothelioma, and other forms of lung and laryngeal cancers. There are also ovarian, gastrointestinal, and other cancers that can result from exposure to asbestos. It generally takes years, sometimes a few decades for these diseases to mature fully as fibers accumulate in lung linings and lungs. It is estimated that over 10,000 Americans die annually from these asbestos-induced diseases.

Obviously death is the most dramatic outcome, but far more people lead lives of misery due to severely damaged lungs that make each breath a struggle. The resulting weakness doubtless leads to many deaths attributed to other causes, such as heart disease. The victims of asbestos, particularly those who die, are mostly those exposed in the workplace, such as miners, and insulation installers. Asbestos-related diseases eventually killed over 60,000 of the roughly 4 million people who worked in American shipyards during WWII [Burke]. Families of those who work with asbestos are also exposed via dust on work-clothes, and the air in the neighborhood of certain factories may be polluted with asbestos fibers. Homes with asbestos insulation can also be hazardous if the insulation is disturbed enough to produce airborne fibers. So asbestos is more than just a workplace hazard.

The process by which asbestos harmed people was well understood by the early twentieth century, certainly by 1930. The refusal, in the 1920s, of some American and Canadian insurance companies to sell life-insurance to asbestos workers made it clear that the danger was not a bugaboo dreamed up by chronic malcontents.

But information about the harm done by asbestos was systematically suppressed by Johns-Manville and other companies in the asbestos industry. They funded "research" projects designed to obscure the situation and, via political pressure, succeeded in delaying regulatory action until the 1970s. In 1989 the EPA, under the Clean Air Act, acted to phase our asbestos in the US. But this was overturned by a 1991 appeals court decision that was not appealed, so there is now a patchwork of regulations that still allows substantial use of asbestos.
The asbestos story continues, with our good citizens friends ALEC and the US Chamber of Commerce having oars in the water:
A big priority for the Chamber this year has been legislation narrowing access to the courts for asbestos victims. The ALEC “Asbestos Claims Transparency Act” was first adopted by members of the ALEC Civil Justice Task Force in 2007 and was introduced in four states in 2013, in many cases supported by testimony from Shook Hardy & Bacon attorney Mark Behrens on behalf of the Chamber's Institute for Legal Reform. The effort would benefit corporations like Crown Holdings, a Fortune 500 company with over $8 billion in annual sales that has worked with ALEC for years to legislate its way out of compensating asbestos victims, as well as ALEC member Honeywell International, which has faced significant asbestos liability in recent years.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:30 PM on September 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

Another waste land was probably responsible for the deaths of John Wayne, Susan Hayward, Dick Powell, and numerous other people who worked on the movie The Conqueror, which was filmed on land where fallout from nuclear bomb tests had landed.
Many people involved in the production knew about the radiation (there's a picture of Wayne himself operating a Geiger counter during the filming), but no one took the threat seriously at the time. Thirty years later, however, half the residents of St. George had contracted cancer, and veterans of the production began to realize they were in trouble.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:41 PM on September 11, 2013

Several things. and Kirth Gerson - my grandfather was a shops and factories inspector here in West Oz back in the early to mid 50s. He repeatedly shut down smaller factories that didn't make any attempt to contain loose fibre within their workshops, but the basis on which he did so was dust control rather than specific links to cancer. The correlation was widely known, he knew it, but for a long time asbestos in general, and Wittenoom in particular, was just too big and important to the economy for anyone to go after CSR directly.

Second thing, in the nineties, working mining exploration on lateritic nickel/cobalt leases it wasn't uncommon for us to hit layers of white asbestos as the drill got down to serpentinite rock under the lateritic clays. Despite the relatively soft nature of serpentinite/chrysotile, if a drill head or pressure hose was going to blow, that'd be the point at which it'd do it. Then the shit'd just fall like soft white snow. It was 50 degrees in the sun, we worked in shorts and boots, dust masks would have been absurdly hot and uncomfortable, and management was always keen to assure us that white was safe, blue was bad..

Third thing. Hale School here in Perth had one its school camps at Wittenoom well into the late 80's. The kids all took home samples of crocodilite. I've got mates who still have theirs sitting on shelves at home.

Finally, I lived about 200 metres downwind from James Hardy's main processing plant here in Perth in my teens. Summer afternoons, there was always a dust plume out of there that'd come drifting over our house. The site of the factory has been cleaned up as best they could, the surrounding suburb hasn't.

Cut a long story short, there's a lot of us who know the most likely way we're going to die. Assuming nothing else gets us first. And in a weird sense, that's kind of liberating. It's not always the way I feel about it, but often enough these days, I'll look at a situation and think.. Fuck it, I'd rather take THAT RISK than slowly suffocate in ten or twenty years time.
posted by Ahab at 4:45 PM on September 11, 2013 [7 favorites]

From the 1930s onwards Vozrozhdeniya was a secret bioweapons testing ground. An island surrounded by deserts, its isolation meant it was unlikely to be discovered by all but the most dedicated snooper. For decades, incredibly deadly and virulent experiments were trialled in its open air. Since the island was so cut off, the chances of these manmade plagues escaping were minimal; thanks to the Soviet Union’s military might, a special fleet of high-speed boats patrolled the water to block out interlopers.

Holy shit are we humans cavalier about this kind of thing. How are any of us even still alive? How many other hideously dangerous science experiments lurk ready to kill us all? Reading this article is making me honestly surprised that we don't all live in some sort of dystopian disease-ravaged hellscape.
posted by yasaman at 4:57 PM on September 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

A few years ago I toured a gold mine in northern California gold strike country. In one corridor was on exhibit a large old-style hammerdrill, the very first power drilling machine introduced into the mine back upon the occasion of its invention. "They came to call this machine the widowmaker," the guide explained, "because everybody who used it died within a couple of years." The later drills all used water to trap the dust, and thus presented different operational difficulties, such as the risk of slipping and drowning in mud.
posted by localroger at 5:29 PM on September 11, 2013

... surprised that we don't all live in some sort of dystopian disease-ravaged hellscape.

Hey, we're workin' on it!
posted by BlueHorse at 5:45 PM on September 11, 2013

About as insane as the idea that thousands of people had to die badly because the asbestos industry was "too big" to shut down, and that its use and lethality continues to this very day.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 8:53 PM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Part Two of that article leads to an amazing pdf called "Expert Judgement on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant" *Note - 20mb pdf. Aside from it reading like a JG Ballard novel, it has amazing illustrations (pages 150 -167) on how to mark contaminated land as dangerous to future generations that might not understand writing or might not even understand what the danger is. It's a pretty amazing read so far - how to design a place that transmits a semiotic message of "this is dangerous: do not be here."
posted by Zack_Replica at 9:21 PM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's a pretty amazing read so far - how to design a place that transmits a semiotic message of "this is dangerous: do not be here."

Yeah, I found that PDF to be fascinating too. Considering how we've broken into all manner of tombs and such with dire warnings about curses inscribed on them, I do wonder how effective any efforts to ward far future people off the danger will be. I like the "Black Hole" concept best for it. The others still seem to invite a certain amount of exploration and interest. "Black Hole" and "Landscape of Thorns" seem to best achieve the goals of visceral discomfort and difficulty of access.
posted by yasaman at 10:00 PM on September 11, 2013

I do wonder how effective any efforts to ward far future people off the danger will be.

Well, if it's anything like the movies, it will be a bunch of insane bikers, punks and goths who'll think they've reached Nirvana and they'll set up camp and have concerts there.
posted by Zack_Replica at 10:41 PM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

a bunch of insane bikers, punks and goths who'll think they've reached Nirvana and they'll set up camp and have concerts there.

So we've finally reached... the fabled Black Rock City! We party with the ancestors tonight, my brothers!
posted by hap_hazard at 12:41 AM on September 12, 2013

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