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Landscapes of extraction


  • Photo 1 of 10

    Near Kayford Mountain, West Virginia.

    After the old-growth forest has been cut and burned, the mountain removed, and the coal extracted, the only "remediation" required of the mining companies is the planting of grass over the site. This is done via hydro-seeding in which a fast growing (and short-lived) grass seed mixed with fertilizer is sprayed over the site.

    - Courtesy of J Henry Fair

  • Photo 2 of 10

    Coal River Mountain, West Virginia.

    After mining, coal must be processed with tremendous amounts of water and chemicals (many of which are known toxicants). This mixture, along with the accumulated residue from the coal washed, is called slurry and is stored in valleys impounded by earthen dams that fail with disturbing frequency. In February 1972, a slurry impoundment in Buffalo Creek, West Virginia burst, killing 125 people and leaving 4,000 homeless.

    - Courtesy of J Henry Fair

  • Photo 3 of 10

    Uncle Sam, Louisiana.

    The ability to fertilize plants by synthesizing the three essential macronutrients enabled the industrial agricultural revolution and the concurrent human population explosion. The waste generated in production of the phosphate component is copious and extremely toxic.

    - Courtesy of J Henry Fair

  • Photo 4 of 10

    Darrow, Louisiana.

    Tremendous amounts of "red mud" bauxite waste are produced through the smelting of aluminum, (which contains many contaminants, heavy metals, and impurities). It is pumped into vast storage "impoundments" and allowed to settle. Once dry, the dust is blown by the wind, dispersing the contaminants and covering everything nearby. The machine tracks seem to be the result of a raking process, possibly to separate solids from the water, the mixing of which would be the result of the heavy rains from Katrina.

    - Courtesy of J Henry Fair

  • Photo 5 of 10

    Geismar, Louisiana.

    Effluents from fertilizer production are pumped into this "gyp stack." The solid gypsum is scooped out by excavators before it hardens, and is spread on the "impoundment" to build it up and allow for higher capacity. This solution is gypsum, sulfuric acid, and an assortment of heavy metals, including uranium and radium. As a result of the RCRA (Resource Conservation and Recovery Act) amendments, these pollutants are not reported.

    - Courtesy of J Henry Fair

  • Photo 6 of 10

    Geismar, Louisiana.

    - Courtesy of J Henry Fair

  • Photo 7 of 10

    Geismar, Louisiana.

    Effluents from fertilizer production are pumped into this "gyp stack." The solid gypsum is scooped out by excavators before it hardens, and is spread on the "impoundment" to build it up and allow for higher capacity. This solution is gypsum, sulfuric acid, and an assortment of heavy metals, including uranium and radium. As a result of the RCRA (Resource Conservation and Recovery Act) amendments, these pollutants are not reported.

    - Courtesy of J Henry Fair

  • Photo 8 of 10

    Texas City, Texas.

    Petroleum coke is a solid, high-carbon material that is produced as a byproduct of the oil refining process. It can serve as either an energy source or carbon source. Fuel-grade petroleum coke is burned to produce energy used in making cement and lime, and for other industrial applications. Products that utilize petroleum coke as a carbon source include aluminum and steel.

    - Courtesy of J Henry Fair

  • Photo 9 of 10

    Wauchula, Florida.

    The phosphate is washed after extraction, and the by-products are consolidated and pumped out to containment impoundments where the liquids and solids are separated. The green color is presumably algae. The red "barrels" are floats to suspend the hose on top of the liquid.

    - Courtesy of J Henry Fair

  • Photo 10 of 10

    Gramercy, Louisiana.

    Bauxite waste. Aluminum production has a tremendous climate change impact with both the gases released and the tremendous amount of electricity needed for the process.

    - Courtesy of J Henry Fair

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: The photographer J Henry Fair does landscapes, images of places that've been changed somehow by the industrial process. Places like the Gulf of Mexico and the BP oil spill. Or clearcut forests and pulp mills. They're aerial shots of what is actually quite picturesque terrain.

J Henry Fair: You're sticking your head out the window in basically a 70-mile-an-hour wind, you're shooting with a long telephoto lens, so you pretty much have to go on autopilot.

The pictures are collected in a new book called "The Day After Tomorrow: Images of Our Earth in Crisis." You can see them here. And we've got J Henry Fair here for our series The Art of Money, what artists and others see when they look at the economy.

Good to have you with us.

Fair: It's a pleasure to be here, Kai.

Ryssdal: I wanted to start with one of the pictures from this book that I found most striking, it's a series of overhead shots, aerial shots, of some emerald green, really stunning water, with kind of white fringes around them, white mounds of stuff surrounded by some pipes. What are those?

Fair: That's exactly the question I asked when I found it. And it's not water, and the whiteness, it looks like snow from above. It turns out to be gypsum, which is part of the process waste from the manufacturing of phosphate fertilizer. But of course, I'm going backwards, because when I photographed that, I had no idea what it was. So then it became a process of figuring it out.

Ryssdal: What'd you do? You must have gotten out of the plane and driven around, right?

Fair: I had to go back down. So that's on the Mississippi River, south of Baton Rouge. And after I had taken the picture, and couldn't figure out what it was, and asked a bunch of engineers and whatnot, I went back down there and rented a car and drove up. I'm from the South, so in my best Southern accent, I said, 'Excuse me. Can I use your bathroom? And do y'all make here?' And by the time I drove up, I knew what the answer to the question was. And the guard there wouldn't let me go to the top of the mound, but she did let me use the bathroom.

Ryssdal: It's all part of this area you found, this region I suppose in Mississippi, that you call 'Cancer Alley," right?

Fair: It happens to be, when I started doing this project, it was before Google Earth, etc., so I knew the place where I knew there would be industry that would make photographic images. Originally I was mostly into making these beautiful images to make people think, but I quickly found out that I had to have the data behind it before the images could really be effective.

Ryssdal: Yeah, it was in the investigative process, right?

Fair: Yeah. Those green pictures are the process waste from making a phosphate fertilizer. And they are both radioactive and very acidic. So what we have is we have a phosphate crisis that dwarfs the gas crisis. And we're going to run out in 40 years, and then we're not going to be able to feed ourselves.

Ryssdal: You are fairly explicit, though, in your aims for this book. You say right out it's a book about the power that a consumer has to shape the world through the purchase decisions that they make.

Fair: Yes. And the reason that these pictures are so effective is because they're both horrible and beautiful. By stimulating curiosity, we can hopefully get people to ask questions and when they get the answers, consider the consequences of a given purchase. When I speak to schoolchildren, I only exaggerate slightly when I tell them that the most important decision that they can make is which toilet paper to buy. And that seems laughable, but one toilet paper promotes deforestation of old growth forests, and another toilet paper promotes the recycling chain that we really want to promote.

Ryssdal: These pictures are about the environment, obviously; they're about human behavior. They're fundamentally, though, about the commercial process, about money.

Fair: Everything is.

Ryssdal: J Henry Fair. His new book of photographs is called "The Day After Tomorrow: Images of Our Earth in Crisis." You can see some images from it here. Thanks a lot.

Fair: Thank you so much, Kai. It's an honor to be here.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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