Mining North America: An Environmental History since 1522

Mining North America: An Environmental History since 1522

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 Over the past five hundred years, North Americans have increasingly relied on mining to produce much of their material and cultural life. From cell phones and computers to cars, roads, pipes, pans, and even wall tile, mineral-intensive products have become central to North American societies. As this process has unfolded, mining has also indelibly shaped the natural world and the human societies within it. Mountains have been honeycombed, rivers poisoned, forests leveled, and the consequences of these environmental transformations have fallen unevenly across North America.
Drawing on the work of scholars from Mexico, the United States, and Canada, Mining North America examines these developments. It covers an array of minerals and geographies while bringing mining into the core debates that animate North American environmental history. Taken all together, the essays in this book make a powerful case for the centrality of mining in forging North American environments and societies.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520279179
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 07/03/2017
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 456
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

J. R. McNeill is Professor of History and University Professor at Georgetown University. His most recent books are The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene since 1945 and Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620–1914.

George Vrtis is Associate Professor of History and Environmental Studies at Carleton College.


Read an Excerpt

Mining North America

An Environmental History since 1522

By J.R. McNeill, George Vrtis


Copyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96653-6


Exhausting the Sierra Madre

Mining Ecologies in Mexico over the Longue Durée


The Cerro de San Pedro is the name of what used to be a small Mexican mountain. It is also the eponym of a small mining town perched in a highland valley overlooking the city of San Luis Potosí, Mexico. Today it is the object of a large-scale open-pit gold and silver mining project, one profoundly reconfiguring local topographies, hydrological systems, and the district's geochemical composition. Every day over the past six years the New Gold mining corporation has detonated massive charges of ANFO, Geldyne, Powerfrac, and Pentex. The mountain of San Pedro is no longer. It has now been reduced to neat set of benches that contour around an ever deepening and enlarging pit. The excavated material is trucked out to leaching piles, where it is sprayed with a cyanide-water solution to filch out microscopic particles of gold, or it is dumped in piles of waste that fill the valleys and arroyos of the surrounding watershed. The impacts on local waters are tremendous. Aside from the acidification and heavymetal release that are contaminating the water, the pit is creating a massive well effect that is drawing in the region's subterranean water flows. By plugging up drainages, the mine is obstructing the movement of surface water. The liners underlying the leaching pads are sealing off one of the regional aquifer's most important recharge zones, and yet simultaneously the project draws in enough water from it to provision an estimated 50,000 people in the neighboring city of San Luis Potosí.

This has long been the way with mining. Since the arrival of Spanish miners in 1592, the extraction of metals from the subsurface has destroyed and re-created landscapes. Indeed, the layered traces of these past transformations remain visible today, even in the midst of the massive upturning of the land. The hillsides that surround the current operations are covered with a mix of exposed sheets of hostrock, patches of soil, and hardscrabble clusters of mesquite, scrub oak, long and spiky ocotillo plants, and a variety of cactuses. This kind of vegetative cover was historically produced during the Spanish period (1592–1821) as the demands for fuel drove deforestation across the region. Nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century mining left other kinds of traces. Much of the surviving built environment dates from that period as does an important network of dams, reservoirs, and millraces for washing ores or for high-pressure hydraulics. Mining also left large piles of tailings, mine waste, and scoria (pebble-sized twists of furnace discards), all heavily mineralized, open to the elements, and blooming into yellows, ochres, and a near blue-green.

The story of Cerro de San Pedro is but a thread in a much larger story that has come to define the landscapes of the Mexican mining belt, a territory composed of hundreds of mines scattered along the Sierra Madre Occidental and Oriental, the Central Mesa, and the highlands to the west and east of the Valley of Mexico. Mining's hold on this territory has proven remarkably persistent. The mining and processing of metals — copper and gold especially — began in the pre-Columbian period, but with Spanish conquest and colonization mining rapidly expanded to become one of the principal pillars of the economy. The core areas of colonial mining — Parral, southern Sonora, central Jalisco, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosí, Guanajuato, Taxco, Pachuca, the highlands of Guerrero and Oaxaca — were all brought into activity within a matter of decades between the 1520s and the 1590s. Its limits — the north of Sonora and the southeast of Chiapas — were set by the mid-seventeenth century and then stayed put. During the Bourbon revival of the eighteenth century, a royal commission inventoried some 453 active mining districts in the viceroyalty. Almost all of these had been established in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. At the turn of the twentieth century, at the height of the U.S. period in Mexican mining, a survey cosponsored by the American Institute of Mining Engineers and the Mexican Republic's Ministerio de Fomento counted 401 mines in exactly the same areas. In 2011, Mexico's geological survey (SGM) listed 718 mines, the majority run by Canadian-based transnational corporations. They are all situated in the same districts mined for the past five hundred years.

In short, Mexico hasn't seen green-field or first-strike mining since the colonial period. Instead it has been marked by a succession of mining regimes — colonial, industrial, and the megaminería of today — that have occupied the same territories. This pattern is not peculiar to Mexico. Many of the core mining territories of the Americas passed through this same succession, over roughly similar time frames. We are familiar with the notion of mines booming and busting, but what the longue durée history of Mexico shows — and this is what deserves closer attention — is that this cycle repeated itself, and then repeated again. It is not what we might expect. Like other extractive industries, mining is based on the removal of a nonrenewable resource. Mineral stocks diminish from the very first day they are exploited to the moment of their exhaustion. This fact is reflected in the decline of ore grades over time. But mineral production in Mexico did not follow this decline in any neat and linear way. Quite the contrary: it moved through a series of cycles, each defined by the expansion, maturity, and decline of a particular mining regime.

This historical pattern raises the two key issues. The first concerns the characteristics and drivers of mining's cyclical history. Although ore grades have indeed declined across the centuries, each successive mining regime has proven to be more productive than its predecessor, producing more metal in any given year and removing a greater amount from the deposit overall. Thus, instead of exhaustion we see periodic phases of reanimation, acceleration, and amplification. This was the outcome, I argue here, of historical capitalism's reworking of resource extraction in this part of the world. Instead of extending a commodity frontier into untapped regions, capitalist forms of mining in Mexico (and most of Latin America) avoided the pinch of increasing metal scarcity through intensification. At different junctures — during the Bourbon reforms of the eighteenth century, the first liberal period of the nineteenth century, and again in the 1990s — we see capitalist mining pushing past the limits of exhaustion thanks to new and more powerful assemblages of laws, technology, and energy flows.

The second issue concerns the environmental consequences of this parade of mining regimes over half a millennium. As each regime established itself within the Mexican mining belt, it created a distinct and coherent set of relationships with local waters, soil, and life. These relationships formed a mining ecology: the matrix of interacting components — socioeconomic relations, physical and biotic systems, as well as energy and material flows — that constituted the landscape wrought by mining. Seen in this light, mining ecologies are comparable to agro-ecologies in that they are part of the larger set of "second natures" created by human activity, but distinct from these in that they are created around the extraction and use of nonrenewable materials. Myrna Santiago's social and environmental history of the Mexican oil patch shows another extractivist ecology, an "ecology of oil," an assemblage of property regimes, laws, race and labor relations, and political economy that together conditioned the environmental consequences of resource extraction.

This chapter focuses on the play of time, and follows the historical progression of Mexico's different mining ecologies over nearly five centuries: the colonial regime (1522–1821); the ecology formed around industrial mining during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries (1883–1960s); and the open-pit mining ecology of our neoliberal present (1990s to today). To provide detail and continuity, it centers its account on the story of the Cerro de San Pedro, folding this narrative within a broader discussion of regional trends and variations. These show a centuries-long pattern of stepwise increases in capital investments, energy inputs, and material flows coupled with a corresponding intensification of mining's environmental footprint. These are the results of mining's centuries-long struggle against exhaustion.


Spanish colonization of what would become the Viceroyalty of New Spain was famously motivated by the quest for precious metals. At first, gold and silver were obtained as part of the spoils of conquest, but plunder quickly gave way to a more systematic search for, and exploitation of, precious-metals deposits. Only months after the final battles for Tenochtitlán (in August 1521), Hernán Cortés was dispatching expeditions to the gold-bearing placers of the Río Balsas and the Río Papaloapán in Oaxaca, as well as parties of miners and foundry men, to investigate reports of metal deposits in Súltepec-Taxco in the mountains 80 kilometers to the southwest of Mexico. These areas became New Spain's first colonial mining districts, with production beginning in 1522 and 1524, respectively. Colonial silver mining was a paradigmatic example of an early modern commodity frontier. It moved north to Pachuca–Real del Monte, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, and Sombrete in the 1540s and 1550s, then to San Luis Potosí, Durango, and Parral (1590s to 1630s), and finally to Sonora — the northern edge of New Spain — by 1633. Within a hundred years, the northern (Sonora) and southern (Oaxaca) limits of New Spain's mining belt had been set, creating a mining region some two thousand kilometers long.

Spanish miners and officials developed a regime of high and long-lasting productivity. For close to three hundred years, colonial Mexican mining increased its production of silver, gold, and other metals (especially copper, mercury, and lead). There was a long lull in the seventeenth century, but it was overcome by the efforts of the Bourbon state in the mid- to late eighteenth century. By Independence in 1821, Mexico had produced close to 49,000 metric tons of silver, with annual production peaking at 611 tons in 1804.

Colonial mining was one of the important forms of proto-industrial production in the early modern Atlantic world. It combined the European arts of mine building and metallurgy, private capital investment of colonial and Atlantic merchants, the work of the state to ensure the supply and regulation of labor (peasant-miners, corvée workers, or African slaves), and the intensive use of energy from hydraulics and biofuel consumption. The product was distributed globally through networks that reached as far as China as early as the late sixteenth century.

Each individual mining operation was relatively small. Exploitation of the mine's one to three tunnels depended on the work of between eight and a few dozen men supported by mules and oxen and, where conditions permitted, a water mill. Milling, amalgamation, and smelting took place in the hacienda de beneficio (metallurgical works). Although there were important exceptions, these facilities were usually modest in size: a mill, a patio, one to three small smelting furnaces, and a dozen or so workers. The average mill processed slightly less than half a ton of ore per day — a good indication of the local rhythms of extraction. Colonial mining scaled up by joining such operations together. The larger mining districts tapping larger deposits (e.g., Guanajuato, Zacatecas, and Pachuca–Real del Monte), combined dozens of such mining operations mobilizing tens of thousands of operarios. Medium-sized districts such as Parral, Cerro de San Pedro, Zimapán, and Taxco counted between five and ten thousand workers.

Cerro de San Pedro, 1591–1821

Colonial mining set in motion a series of ecological changes whose trajectories were complex and contingent on local variables of topography, climate, soil composition, and vegetation cover. This process is best viewed locally. The mines of Cerro de San Pedro, a middling-size mining district in Mexico's near north, were established in a valley perched among the rounded peaks of a subrange of the Sierra Madre Oriental. When the Spanish miners arrived in 1592, the sierras were covered in a mix of mesquite-oak and pine-oak forests with scrub, cacti, and denser stands of mesquite and willow along the watercourses of the larger valley. Lying beneath the plants were rendzina soils: a relatively thin layer of dark-red, fertile, and humus-rich soil spread out over the calcareous bedrock. Sources mention surface water flows of intermittent arroyos, perennial streams and rivers, and extensive marshes where the watershed flattened out into the plain of San Luis Potosí. Until the twentieth century, surviving wetlands continued to be one of the main recharge areas for the region's aquifer. In precolonial times the variety of biomes had made the area a favored ground for local Guachichil and Pamé hunters and gatherers.

Mining began in 1592, and within a year more than twenty mines were working their way into the mountain of San Pedro. Mills and foundries were established to process the ore, either in the neighboring valley of San Luis or wherever there was enough water flow to wash the ores and power the crushing mills. In 1630 there were more than fifty such mills. An estimated five thousand people labored at Cerro de San Pedro itself: mine workers, carboneros (charcoal makers), mill workers, muleteers, and artisans.

Colonial mining affected the regional environment in two main ways. The first was fuelwood consumption. An average of 126 square kilometers of forest were cut every year in and around Cerro de San Pedro for fuelwood. The surrounding highlands were cleared by carboneros in a matter of years. Observers described the local landscape as completely denuded of any tree or sizable shrub save "a few surviving yuccas upon the bald hills." Rapid and thorough deforestation had important repercussions on the local landscape that have endured to this day. From a human ecology perspective, the elimination of forests destroyed the subsistence base of local Guachichil and Pamé peoples, facilitating their incorporation into the Spanish colonial sphere as slave laborers and their eventual demise as an autonomous, living culture. From a landscape ecology perspective, the most important effect of deforestation was the massive erosion of the thin cap of rendzina soils. Precipitation in this area mainly comes in the form of intense summer rainstorms that can drop between 40 and 90 millimeters of rain at a time. Without the protective cover of the leaf canopy or the anchoring function of root mats, the soils washed out at prodigious rates, leaving behind slabs of local blue limestones. Soil-building processes in the region's semiarid climate are extremely slow and were further impeded by the subsequent introduction of sheep and goat herding. Today, the soils of the Cerro de San Pedro range are limited to small pockets of very sandy and mineralized lithosols in the crevices of the bedrock and around the root mats of some tenacious shrubs and cacti.

With the forest cover gone and the soil cover going, local watersheds were less capable of modulating the pulses of seasonal and episodic rainfall. Severe flooding episodes powerful enough to wash out buildings and structures in the valley city of San Luis were recorded throughout the colonial period and continue to the present day. Between the floods, the overall trend was toward a general desiccation of the landscape. The lack of forest and soil cover resulted in local watersheds draining faster and drying up sooner than they had before. Marshlands described in the early seventeenth century no longer appeared on maps drawn in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Steady, year-round water flow in local rivers diminished and eventually disappeared. In the early eighteenth century an official report on the state of agriculture in the area in and around San Luis Potosí identified as central problems the chronic flooding, the constant droughts, and the generally thin and "sterile" soils.


Excerpted from Mining North America by J.R. McNeill, George Vrtis. Copyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction: Of Mines, Minerals, and North American Environmental History George Vrtis J. R. McNeill 1

Part 1 Capitalist Transformations

1 Exhausting the Sierra Madre: Mining Ecologies in Mexico over the Longue Durée Daviken Studnicki-Gizbert 19

2 Reconstructing the Environmental History of Colonial Mining: The Real del Catorce Mining District, Northeastern New Spain/Mexico, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries Antonio Avalos-Lozano Miguel Aguilar-Robledo 47

Part 2 Industrial Catalysts

3 A World of Mines and Mills: Precious-Metals Mining, Industrialization, and the Nature of the Colorado Front Range George Vrtis 73

4 Consequences of the Comstock: The Remaking of Working Environments on America's Largest Silver Strike, 1859-1880 Robert N. Chester III 108

5 Dust to Dust: The Colorado Coal Mine Explosion Crisis of 1910 Thomas G. Andrews 132

6 Copper and Longhorns: Material and Human Power in Montana's Smelter Smoke War, 1860-1910 Timothy James LeCain 166

7 Efficiency, Economics, and Environmentalism: Low-Grade Iron Ore Mining in the Lake Superior District, 1913-2010 Jeffrey T. Manuel 191

Part 3 Health and Environmental Justice

8 Mining the Atom: Uranium in the Twentieth-Century American West Eric Mogren 219

9 A Comparative Case Study of Uranium Mine and Mill Tailings Regulation in Canada and the United States Robynne Mellor 256

10 The Giant Mine's Long Shadow: Arsenic Pollution and Native People in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories John Sandlos Arn Keeling 280

11 Iron Mines, Toxicity, and Indigenous Communities in the Lake Superior Basin Nancy Langston 313

12 If the Rivers Ran South: Tar Sands and the State of the Canadian Nation Steven M. Hoffman 339

13 Quebec Asbestos: Triumph and Collapse, 1879-1983 Jessica van Horssen 369

Afterword: Mining, Memory, and History Andrew C. Isenberg 398

Contributors 413

Index 417

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