August 10, 2015

The Machine That Must Run Forever

Leadville Mining District (Bureau of Reclamation).
This is the website for the "10,000 Year Clock" proposal, also known as the Long Now.
There is a Clock ringing deep inside a mountain. It is a huge Clock, hundreds of feet tall, designed to tick for 10,000 years. Every once in a while the bells of this buried Clock play a melody. Each time the chimes ring, it’s a melody the Clock has never played before. The Clock’s chimes have been programmed to not repeat themselves for 10,000 years.
Very nice, but we already have a "10,000-year clock." Several of them, in fact.

They do not tell time, but they must run forever. As in forever, as long as people live downstream from Colorado mine pollution.

Or until there is some major geological change, a technological breakthrough, or society devolves into some kind of Max Max, The Dog Stars, or World Made by Hand kind of future.

In that case, cadmium and other heavy metals in your drinking water and a lack of trout in the river might be lower down your list of problems. Who can say?

Maybe you heard about how work by the Environmental Protection Agency to remedy mine-drainage pollution in a tributary of the Animas River in SW Colorado went horrible wrong.

A toxic slug is flowing downstream into New Mexico and eventually to the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River.

Some people just want to use this incident to beat up on the EPA. Others worry about the effects on people dependent on the river and on its aquatic life.

My point is, this is not unique. Colorado, "mother of rivers," (South Platte, North Platte, Rio Grande, Arkasas, Colorado) is also a state built on mining.

Take the headwaters of the Arkansas River — the mining area around Leadville. It boomed on silver, but in the 1940s, the call was for zinc — zinc to make brass — brass for all the cartridge cases and artillery shells of World War Two.

But the mines filled with water as they went deeper, water percolating from rain and snow melt. So miners drilled a long, long tunnel to drain them, routing it into the river.
Leadville Mine Drain — the "floor" is water.

The metals that the tunnel picked up killed the river. So in 1991, the Bureau of Reclamation opened a treatment plant to neutralize the drainage. It's simple chemistry really.

When I co-taught an environmenal writing class at Colorado State University-Pueblo, my colleague and I used to take students up there on a field trip. We would rent some vans — it is about 160 miles one way, and many students had never been that far up the river that feeds their city.

We would tour the treatment plant and also drive past  the similar Yak Drainage Tunnel.

As some who read the old Whole Earth Review and CoEvolution Quarterly, I know about the "Long Now" project. I was interested, but I wanted to bring those Bay Area techno-hippies up to Leadville.

"Look here," I would say. "It's already running. Just add the chimes."

Because this "machine" has to run forever.

Forever.

Forever.

In the words of that old treaty with the Iroquois Confederacy in New York, "as long as the waters flow."

We all know how that worked out.

2 comments:

Darrell said...

I used to live in Leadville, and worked at the Climax mine. Every spring the Yak tunnel, I guess, discharged its orange effluent downstream, eventually hitting the Arkansas outside town. It would run for weeks or months as the spring snowmelt occurred. Climax also has a drainage problem, they built a treatment plant below the tailings ponds on the Copper Mountain side of Fremont pass. As you said, it will have to run forever. Great job security, huh.

Chas Clifton said...

I would call that more of a "tailings lake" below the Climax molybdenum mine!