Walker and LeCain Awarded NSF Grant: Will Compare Japanese and American Reactions to Mining Pollutants

By Evelyn Boswell, Montana State University News Service, Bozeman

Originally published in the Spring 2007 Envirotech Newsletter.

Editor’s Note: I hope you all will forgive me in advance for including an article on my own work here, but I think the project will be of interest to many of you. By all means, please send me similar news service reports on your own work and I will be happy to include them. Although it is not readily apparent from this article, the research project draws heavily on the new thinking in envirotech many of you have contributed to over the past few years. A better sense of our intellectual foundations and goals may be had be reading the grant abstract at:

Two Montana State University historians who see insightful similarities between former copper mines in Montana and Japan have received $306,000 from the National Science Foundation to investigate and share their findings.

Brett Walker, Tim LeCain and six MSU graduate students will compare how Montanans and Japanese residents dealt with the technology, science and pollution associated with two huge copper mines that existed in the late 1800s and early 1900s. One mine was at Butte/Anaconda, the other at Ashio, Japan.

The mines existed in different cultures, environments and religious contexts, but each used highly sophisticated technology that had never been used before, Walker said. They had underground electrical systems. They had railroad systems and complicated smeltering systems.

Each mine helped modernize its country and allowed it to thrive in an international economy, Walker added. Both operations were entrenched in local politics. At the same time, the mines created environmental disasters that appeared first in species that symbolized the earlier economies of those areas — cattle in the American West and silkworms in East Asia. Sulfur dioxide fell onto pastures and poisoned the cattle that grazed around Anaconda and Butte. It also fell on mulberry bushes and killed large silkworm colonies in central Japan.

“If you are a Buddhist and believe that all living creatures are part of a continuum of life and everything has a soul, do you view environmental destruction, particularly the death of animals, differently than you do if you’re raising livestock in Butte and Anaconda?” Walker asked.

LeCain said, “Two key symbols, cattle and silkworms, suffered very similar effects, but more interesting is that Americans and Japanese, because of their respective cultural differences, had very different readings of these two pollution events.”

Walker, head of MSU’s Department of History and Philosophy, is an expert in the environmental history of Japan. LeCain specializes in the history of technology, particularly mining technology. In a blending of interests, the researchers will travel to Japan, Butte and Anaconda to examine the mines and the effect they had on the environment. The area around Ashio is much steeper and damper than the Butte/Anaconda area, Walker said. Walker and LeCain will also study historical documents and interview area residents, then write a book on their findings, develop a web site and create interactive maps to show the impact of each mine.

“A lot has been written about both mines, but there have been no comparisons between the two,” Walker said. “We are asking different questions, more scientific, ecological and technological questions.”

The entire process will continue to develop MSU’s graduate program in history which added a doctorate program four years ago, Walker said. The graduate program will have about 25 students in the fall, 11 of them working on their Ph.Ds. Several of the Ph.D. students are working on dissertations that explore the environmental history of mining in Montana.

“The grant funds our research, but also funds what is a very vibrant, active graduate program,” Walker said. The researchers said their project isn’t meant to demonize copper; they appreciate the computers and other conveniences it allows. LeCain noted that a Boeing 747 contains about 9,000 pounds of copper, a typical house contains 400 pounds, and a car averages 50 pounds. Copper is an important component in video games and computers.

Mining may not be the industry it once was in Butte/Anaconda and Ashio, but it’s big in other areas of the world, the researchers said. Other countries are now dealing with the issues that Montana and Japan once faced.

“It’s not happening in our back yard right now, but it’s not that it’s not happening somewhere,” Walker said. LeCain said, “We all have to grapple with this ecological reality. We are not offering easy solutions, but moral dilemmas.”