Uranium Disposal


The Moment Before

Volume 7, Issue 01
September 20, 2021

“If we come across a mound six feet long and three feet wide in the forest, formed into a pyramid, shaped by a shovel, we become serious and something in us says, “Someone lies buried here” That is Architecture. - Adolf Loos

The toolled, technical form of a mound combined with its cultural/cognitive presence, as described by Adolf Loos, has been the impetus for much recent theoretical and pedagogical discussion surrounding the origins of architecture. Looking beyond the simple grave, there remains an unexplored trove of works, ancient and modern, that demonstrate our innate tendency to produce and also inhabit piles of earth and materials shaped through the angle of repose. In a built environment characterised today by complexity in skins, structures and constructions, we might ask – is it still relevant to think about simple forms like the mound today as relevant forms of architecture.

I came across a series of Department of the Interior-led reclamation projects of uranium mines and mills known as Uranium Disposal Cells. Reclamation here means the burying of toxic tailings under acres of clay, plastic protective sheeting and rip rap rock. These protective measures are intended to contain the toxicity present in the mill sites, preventing radioactive soils from leaching into local water sources. Their effectiveness is disputed. The expansive forms of infrastructure developed through this process fall under the logic of the mound on a much larger, monumental scale. These legacies of the modernist ideals of progress are hidden literally out-of-site, out-of-mind in small communities across the southwest, permanent fixtures for at least the next 1,000 years.

One such disposal cell exists in Mexican Hat, Utah on the Navajo Nation, a site complicit in decades of environmental injustice against indigenous peoples. Here, locals worked towards the production of the United States war and energy machine of the mid century without protection and knowledge of the radioactive and potentially deadly impact of the rocks they interacted with daily. The expansive protective cell was completed in the 90s becoming a terrain vague, a land with no real use, a blank spot on the map.

There are 4,000 such unreclaimed and unremediated uranium mine and mill sites in the US alone, many on tribal lands. The Orphan Lode Mine, located on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon on a popular tourist track is a site rich in minerals, natural beauty and land disputes. The South Rim, often touted as a place of pure untarnished nature, is, through settler prospectors, pocked by discrete industrial landscapes. The Orphan Lode Mine, permit obtained in 1893, mined through 1,000 feet of rock to extract some of the richest contents of Uranium in the nation. Grand Canyon National Park took ownership of the 26 acre site, 5 of which are above the rim of the canyon, in the late 1960s. In the years prior it had been central in a congressional dispute, when it was realized that mining was extending past the claims boundaries and into the park itself. A national spectacle ensued, as the role of environmental federal oversight and individual freedoms ensued. The mine and adjacent resort were closed and fenced off in 1969, becoming a barrier on the famous South Rim Trail. The Havasu Tribe, one of the only tribes with remaining land claims within park boundaries, worry today that contaminated soils might eventually affect their sources of water several miles downstream. Partially reclaimed in the early 2010’s, work remains incomplete.

The question of these toxic landscapes begs a proposal and speculation for the remediation of such sites, unusable in their current state. Through past governmental proposals for disposal cells, the image of the mound as architecture was perverted by its implications in modernity.

Derived from the Latin word mundus, meaning world, might a reassessment of the Mound allow us to see our physical surroundings differently? In these unintended architectures, might we be able to discern and thus grapple with the byproducts of human inventions and mistakes in the late anthropocene? Is there a way to foreground and reevaluate our dealings with toxic ecology, while creating a collaborative dialogue between federal lands and their original inhabitants? Mounds today continue the sacred nature of the countless mounds of indigenous cultures, persisting as an elegy to the sacred dedication of the modernist notions of progress.

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Volume 7, Issue 01
September 20, 2021