Politics of Contaminated Kin

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Photo Credit: Remarkable Rocks in the Flinders Chase National Park, Kangaroo Island, Australia. By Vishnubonam

The Australian crust is rarely active, often exposed to high temperatures, and relatively isolated—meaning its soils are ancient, dry, and nutrient poor. It is difficult to imagine rocks and soil as lively kin when timescales operate so incongruously with the human experience. But sometimes, especially when disturbed, minerals assert their agency and demand kinship. They migrate down rivers, drift across borders, seep into flesh, and settle in our bones. They scribe the extractive history of a place into bodies through neurological interruption, developmental deformity, and corrosive powers, weaving themselves into intergenerational futures. It is a small cost, the powerful argue, a cost that individuals must bear. It is a slow violence for which none can be truly held accountable. There is agency to something seemingly as stable as rock, the transience and mobility of the mineral terra that supports all life. The rocks tell a story that calls out deviant kinships, the inequalities of power, and the shirking of responsibility that pervades mining communities.

I want to take you for a moment to the remote inland Australian city of Broken Hill. It is a place that I grew to love through years of doctoral research, connections, and care. I worked with communities involved in one of the earliest examples of ecological restoration amid a highly modified mining town that dwells among increasingly extreme environmental conditions. I chose not to return while pregnant so as to avoid the environmental toxicity that would create an unknown level of health risk to our growing child. It is well understood that fetal and postnatal development is interrupted by a neurotoxin carried in lead-heavy dust. I was uncomfortable explaining this decision to locals, those who, through their home place, are bound in kinship with the mineral legacies of extractive mining.

The ecology of arid Australia is patient. It is an ecology shaped by deep time, one that was battered by settler violence toward Indigenous nations and the impacts of European pastoralism, clearing, and mining. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Australia brimmed with a culture prospecting for untapped ore bodies. In 1883, the discovery of a significant ore body laden with silver, lead, and zinc in a jagged geological anomaly in far southwestern New South Wales marked the rapid expansion inland into the traditional land of the Wiljakali people. This area is now known as Broken Hill.

Mining became the final straw for local ecological limitations, bringing with it booms of population, vegetation clearing, foreign animals, water consumption, and toxic waste. At the same time that the local mining industry was booming, water provisions were becoming stretched and sand drift and dust were increasingly mobilized. Severe dust storms followed each significant period of drought (1902–1903, 1925–1926, 1941–1946, 1948–1951), demonstrating the instability and mobility of the earth.[1] Significant sand drift and dust became a threat to the future of the mining industry in the 1930s—a global decade of trouble with dust—that motivated local efforts to protect the town through land rehabilitation.[2] Increasingly, in the localized mineral mobility, new stories were encoded. When the dust moves today, it is dust of a new kind, inscribed with toxic legacies.

Lead has been mined in Broken Hill since 1884. For a long time, the risk to human health of lead and lead mining has been known. At the turn of the twentieth century, a royal commission was conducted in Broken Hill into the health impacts of lead. Through time, efforts to address health concerns have depended on inconsistent public funding. Between 1991 and 2003, active education and remediation efforts saw a decrease in lead levels in Broken Hill’s children, but since then progress has slowed and still remains far from the minimum Australian health standards. In 2014, 53 percent of children in Broken Hill had levels of lead in their blood above the recently released National Health and Medical Research Council draft reference value for lead. Today, health experts have characterized lead toxicity as a public concern of global dimensions.[3] It manifests as social and physiological disadvantage and disability, and it generates persistent mental health and behavioral problems.

Health effects are hideous, irreversible, and unevenly distributed among the community. The young, the poor, and the Indigenous community are at heightened risk of exposure. Improperly maintained rental buildings in proximity to contaminated sites are to blame. A thin veneer of dust settles on play equipment, windowsills, and vegetables, and washes into water tanks. Children consume lead and get sick. Signs in public parks remind kids to wash their hands, and public health advice suggests avoiding homegrown food and rainwater that might be contaminated. High lead exposure is also correlated to proximity to toxic skip dumps. Piles of toxic residue from smelting operations dwell around the town. Brittle capping, weathered by the elements, has enabled the increased movement of dust, although recent efforts by public environment and health agencies have attempted to slow the demise. There are no signs marking the dumps’ presence, but they do make great bike jumps, kicking contaminated dirt into the faces of children. The impacts of lead will be experienced in yet another generation as it migrates from the bones of pregnant women into their growing babies.[4] Broken Hill’s story is clear evidence of what the literary scholar Rob Nixon calls “slow violence,” whereby socioenvironmental injustices of the world’s poor often occur at rates not easily noticeable and not well suited to big headlines.[5]

Individual and collective relationships with toxicity are also made more permissible by powerful corporate narratives. In 2016, the environmental scientists Louise Kristensen and Mark Taylor published a paper called “Unravelling a ‘Miner’s Myth’ That Environmental Contamination in Mining Towns Is Naturally Occurring.” Their work highlights the myths that industrial operators actively create and disseminate to “distract the public and the authorities away from understanding and determining the true source and cause of environmental contamination.”[6] The accountability of current mining operators and those tied to extractive legacies are excused through myths about natural background weathering and erosion; legacy issues from historic operations; an argument for transfer to human bodies being limited by low bioavailability; and by distributing blame to other lead sources such as lead paint, petrol, and old batteries. Importantly, these are not just myths that are pushed by industry; they have made their way into public consciousness, have shaped public policy, and have been taken as truths by government departments. In this way, industry partners consistently abdicate their responsibilities for the material proximity and consequence of wealth extraction—that of lives lived in community with contaminated kin.

In Broken Hill, such myths normalize the daily relationship with material toxicity and work to shift responsibility onto unassuming locals. For example, Sarah Martin tells me that in the 1980s the message from the Lead Center was: “If your child has got high lead levels, then you’re a dirty bitch.”[7] Generations of locals have witnessed repeated waves of lead awareness and grown up with mascots like Lead Ted, a friendly teddy bear who shares health advice, guiding locals to living safely with their neighborly lead. Wayne Lovis tells me in a jolly voice: “We’re all lead-affected. We’re all lead heads, as we call ourselves.” Through local narratives and sheer necessity, locals are encouraged to remain “lead heads” for the sake of the economy and to hold with pride the ways that they are bound up with the material realities of the place. Furthermore, many families participate in the mining sector and so are understood to some degree as being complicit in pollution.

This is a story that plays out far beyond the boundaries of Broken Hill. Mineral exploration and mining processes are central to the expansion and extraction mentality of frontier, settler culture in Australia. They contribute to continentwide environmental despoliation and contamination underpinned by pro-development ideology. This is the settler-colonial legacy that all must carry with them. It is an aspect of our uncomfortable ancestry that binds non-Indigenous Australians into relationships of violence to country and culture. Still today, the interests of the mining industry are repeatedly granted higher moral validity than that of human, social, and environmental health. This is something that ought to be challenged, and yet it persists.

The Australian mining industry is saturated by a systemic culture of shirking environmental and health responsibilities and deflecting legacy issues to the public and local government. Financial bonds—a common government “solution”—are radically insufficient for best-practice remediation efforts. In Broken Hill, the bonds for site rehabilitation are passed along with the exchange of mining leases (set in the 1800s and drastically underpriced), and the regulators responsible for enforcing rehabilitation do not even live in the city. Often, companies avoid cleanup by keeping nonoperating mines in a temporary freeze so as to avoid closure and rehabilitation actions under the auspices of “care and maintenance,” known as mothballing. It also facilitates time for technological improvement that may permit additional extraction and further financial gain. Mothballing is continued either in perpetuity or until the company files for bankruptcy. In other cases, mines are sold for a small amount, allowing the responsible companies to sidestep or drastically reduce cleanup expenses.

At present, there are in excess of fifty thousand abandoned mines in Australia.[8] The ongoing impact of mines once they have ceased operation receives little attention, but it is often in that aftermath that the true physical and emotional scars weave into patterns of community suffering. The criminologist Rob White points to the trade-offs between social and ecological considerations and economic gain that mining inevitably involves. He uses the term contaminated communities to describe the toxic and detrimental legacies that play out in human and nonhuman communities.[9] This kinship with contamination is not chosen or destined, it is not always evident, and it is never just.

Sometimes the narratives constructed by capitalist powers are so powerful that they work against active healing efforts. A powerful demonstration of this is in Queenstown, northwestern Tasmania. Queenstown’s rivers run orange, and the effects of the ecological toxicity from acid-mine drainage spread far into the King and Queen Rivers, which carry heavy arsenic loads. The town itself is described by the writer Pete Hay as an “archetypal turn-of-century mining town.”[10] Situated within today’s Tasmanian “west coast wilderness,” its political and cultural predilections as a mining town present a stark contrast to the preservationist green movement that has dominated the area since the 1970s. In part because of this antagonism, locals hold a strong and proud view of their industrial history that thrived for more than one hundred years. More than a century of mining and smelting operations put continual pressure on the surrounding hills, and what remains are the iconic pale orange hues of the lunar landscape, largely devoid of vegetation and popular with tourists. In 1993, the mine was scheduled to close and was required by law to conduct extensive rehabilitation works, including a revegetation program, but the desolate hills and the vibrant river shades had become kin. Locals resisted and halted the remediation efforts. Such it is that a strong sense of place does not necessarily correlate with pro-environmental values; neither does the environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht’s notion of “solastalgia”—the devastation felt at the loss of a sense of place—always relate to a move from ecological health to ecological destruction.[11]

In seeking to understand bioregional kinship and processes of making kin, we must remember to look to the contaminated communities in which unlikely kin are made. In these places, once-solid rocks become the chemicals that bind us and all beings in their wake, together with settler-colonial legacies, global relationships of capital and power, and local disadvantage. These communities are examples of what the environmental philosopher Val Plumwood calls “shadow places”: those places forgotten in the ruins of capitalism, marred by environmental, social, and cultural desecration for the benefit of the wealth of distant others. Their bodies—geological and biological—and their respective stories are as deserving of our care as hopeful ones.

Paying attention to these places uncovers systemic cultural practices of harm that bind all who participate in the benefits of extractive capitalism into relationships of responsibility with contaminated kin. It is a responsibility to traditional owners, local ecologies, local people, and future generations that renders change a moral imperative. ValPlumwood advocates that to destabilize the power relations embedded in such places, we need a careful, bioregional, place-based critique.[12] Such a critique challenges what the anthropologist Richard Howitt identifies as corporate narratives of development that “subsume everything into the story of the mine.”[13] In my work with the Broken Hill community, the uncovering of these stories came about through historical research, collaborative art practices, inclusive place-based storytelling, and participatory action research and workshops. Local stories are powerful in uncovering the corporate myths, enduring legacies to human and nonhuman communities, and true costs of extraction, while also giving voice to often-silenced concerns. Stories enable different timescales to coalesce, bringing geological timescales forward and sending political accountability backward.

Stark questions of responsibility and accountability emerge from this example of local and global entanglements.Mining company fortunes foretell public health misfortunes. Minerals from Broken Hill are shipped around the world. What was once a locally owned industry has come under the control of international stakeholders. Global economies of extraction fill the pockets of international shareholders while lead continues to penetrate bodies. Extractive mentalities and accelerated climate change intersect to hasten devastation in a land already beset by extremes, of drought and flooding rains, of fragile soils and brittle ecologies. Today, as dust storms blow across the continent and fires rage in unprecedented and devastating capacity, the Earth is speaking back. In the words of the poet Judith Wright:

O sighing at the blistered door, darkening the evening star,

the dust accuses. Our dream was the wrong dream,

our strength was the wrong strength.

Weary as we are, we must make a new choice,

a choice more difficult than resignation.[14]

Just as it is with our human family, we are encoded in kin relationships with our entire ancestral lines, not just those of which we are fond. They write themselves into our genes as they do our soils. Sometimes our histories bind us into living with unexpected aspects of place so that they become our familiar acquaintances—even when degraded and sickening—reinforced through global systems of capital, power, and evasion of responsibility. By paying attention to the very local and very physical entanglements that endure within contaminated communities, by lifting up silenced voices of human and nonhuman kin, by making visible the oftentimes invisible legacies of mineral manipulations, the future may be called to be a little bit more just. We must reckon with our ancestral kin as they speak through the bodies of people and earth, in relationships of beauty as much as of contamination.

Reprinted from Kinship: Belonging in a World of Relations, Vol. 2: Place.


[1] Glenn Albrecht, Helen Allison, Neville Ellis, and Megan Jaceglav, Resilience and Water Security in Two Outback Cities (Gold Coast, Australia: National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, 2010).

[2] I have written elsewhere about Broken Hill being home to one of the first global examples of ecological restoration. See Lilian M. Pearce, “Restoring Broken Histories,” Australian Historical Studies 48, no. 4 (2017): 569–91.

[3] Shilu Tong, Yasmin E. von Schirnding, and Tippawan Prapamontol, “Environmental Lead Exposure: A Public Health Problem of Global Dimensions,” Bulletin of the World Health Organisation 78, no. 9 (2000): 1068–77.

[4] For example, see Howard Hu and Mauricio Hernandez-Avila, “Lead, Bones, Women, and Pregnancy—The Poison Within?” American Journal of Epidemiology 156, no. 12 (2002): 1088–90.

[5] Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).

[6] Louise Jane Kristensen and Mark Patrick Taylor, “Unravelling a ‘Miner’s Myth’ That Environmental Contamination in Mining Towns Is Naturally Occurring,” Environmental Geochemistry and Health 38, no. 4 (2016): 1015–27.

[7] Personal interview with Sarah Martin, Broken Hill, June 16, 2016.

[8] Corinne Unger, “What Should We Do with Australia’s 50,000 Abandoned Mines?” The Conversation, July 23, 2014.

[9] Rob White, “Resource Extraction Leaves Something Behind: Environmental Justice and Mining,” International Journal for Crime and Justice 2, no. 1 (2013): 50–64.

[10] Pete Hay, “‘These Blarsted Hills’: Affectionate Regard for a Despoilated Landscape,” in Words for Country: Landscape & Language in Australia, ed. Tim Bonyhady and Tom Griffiths (Sydney: NewSouth Press, 2001), 1. For a history of the Queenstown mining industry, see Geoffrey Blainey, The Peaks of Mt. Kyell (Hobart, Tasmania: St. David’s Park Publishing, 2000).

[11] Glenn Albrecht, “‘Solastalgia’: A New Concept in Health and Identity,” Philosophy Activism Nature 3, no. 1 (2005): 41–55.

[12] Val Plumwood, “Shadow Places and the Politics of Dwelling,” Australian Humanities Review 44 (2008): 139–50.

[13] Ritchard Howitt, “Developmentalism, Impact Assessment and Aborigines: Rethinking Regional Narratives at Weipa,” in Discussion Paper 24 (1995): 137–57; David S. Trigger, “Mining, Landscape and the Culture of Development in Australia,” Ecumene 4, no. 2 (1997): 161–80, at 166.

[14] Judith Wright, “Dust,” in Collected Poems (Sydney: HarperCollins, 1994), 23–24.

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