Land Marks: Tar Sands, Fracking, Detonation, and Nuclear Waste

In this series, I have composited together screen shots of sites of pollution, extraction, and detonation on Google Earth, and then painstakingly removed their surroundings in an effort to render them more legible. This work was completed at the Stonehouse Residency and exhibited at East Wing (Dubai).

detail image of a larger cutout of satellite imagery of a tar sands mine, with waste ponds, buildings and roads visible a sprawling, spidery-looking pattern of paths to and from fracking drills

Land Marks

Far from the cities, out in the dust or the taiga, is a text that was written by us. Though the edges of this text may be smudged by time, floods, sand, and regrowth, its words are legible from space, and they tell stories of extractions, explosions, and burials. This text refuses to be erased, a physical insistence that can feel surprising in the the midst of the renewal and amnesia of everyday experience. Cities overturn themselves, subdivisions are shoddily built and fall into disrepair, we bemoan our lack of historical consciousness. Meanwhile, our inadvertent monuments are lastingly built on the fringes, forming the immovable collateral of our desires. These are the places where our dream of limitlessness meets the limit of the cold, hard ground and alters the face of the earth. Unlike the other stories we tell, this one is not abstract. It is written in the dirt and will be readable long after the writers have forgotten it.

1. Athabasca Oil Sands (Syncrude Open Surface Mine), Alberta, Canada

Oil sands, much of which occur in Canada, are typically extracted by drilling oil wells into the ground. The Athabasca oil sands in Alberta, Canada, represent one of the only areas where the deposits are shallow enough to use surface mining instead. Thus it is here that the activity of extraction is most visible from above. Surface mining of oil sands involves some of the world's largest power shovels and dump trucks to remove the sand for processing with water and caustic soda. This (often strangely-colored) water and chemical combination is stored on site in plastic-lined depressions, forming tailings ponds. Dealing with tailings ponds remains one of the challenges of oil sands production, as it is does with many other types of mining operations.

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detailed cutout of satellite imagery of a tar sands mine

2. Unknown Detonation Sites in the Nevada Test Site

The Nevada Test Site (also known as the Nevada National Security Site) is a still-operational nuclear proving ground that opened in the 1950s. Probably its best known feature is Area 51, but it contains many other areas and at 1,360 square miles, takes up a significant portion of Nevada. The area below is a network of marks and roads related to detonations, which may well have occurred underground. It is unclear as to which area the network is in (somewhere roughly in the center of the test site), and what purpose the detonations served.

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cutout of satellite imagery of detonation sites and the pathways connecting them

3. Fracking Patterns in Central Colorado

Fracking is a process of injecting high pressure water and chemicals into the ground in order to cause fractures and release natural gas or oil. The US is currently in the midst of a fracking boom, more or less everywhere except for the west coast (though some fracking does occur in central California). Proponents of fracking often frame the natural gas resources of the US in terms of energy independence from the the middle east, but the practice -- while causing many of the waste-related complications that mining and drilling operations often do -- has also been associated with small earthquakes and flammable drinking water. The lattice-like pattern below is formed by the sites where the drills are (or were), and the small dirt roads out to each drill site, which must contend with the mountainous topography of the area.

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cutout of satellite imagery of fracking sites and pathways connecting them

Nuclear Waste at the Hanford Site, Washington State

The Hanford Site is a decommissioned nuclear production site which, among other things, produced the plutonium for the atomic bomb dropped over Nagasaki in 1945. While much significant research was conducted at the site, nuclear waste was mishandled and some of it is known to have escaped into the Columbia River. Other waste was inexpertly stored in tanks that were not well designed for the amount of time the waste would actually be there. The result is the most contaminated nuclear site in the country, containing two thirds of the country's high-level radioactive waste. The Hanford Site includes several old reactor sites and an operational nuclear power plant; the 200 Area (above) is where crews are currently dealing with the liquid waste in the underground tanks. Solid waste is stored permanently in a landfill (the solid rectangular area in the center, slightly to the left). Cleanup efforts are ongoing.

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cutout of satellite imagery of a waste processing site, with long, straight roads between larger areas