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This bird’s eye view of America’s most polluted sites will break your heart

For his new book, Waste Land, photographer and activist David T. Hanson captured stunning aerial images of 67 of the country’s Superfund sites, the most dangerously polluted sites in the U.S.

For more than 30 years, David T. Hanson’s photographs have captured the destruction of the American landscape due to rampant industrialization and our military culture. For his latest book, Waste Land, he took photos of 67 of the more than 400 Superfund sites that constitute the most dangerously polluted places in the United States. Traveling across 45 states over a year, his aerial photographs are stunning in their depiction of the horrible transformation of the environment.

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In addition to his art, Hanson works directly with environmental organizations and government officials. Some of the photographs in the book played a major role in opening the eyes of residents of Montana to the destruction of their beautiful state, leading to legislation that banned the cyanide heap-leach gold and silver mining process in the state.

Recently, Hanson sat down to answer some questions from Fast Company via email.

Fast Company: When you first exhibited your work at MoMA in 1986, did you anticipate that the environment would be so decimated and destroyed by 2018?

Waste Land by David T. Hanson [Image: courtesy Taverner Press]
David T. Hanson: In creating Waste Land in 1985-86, as I traveled to 45 states in one year photographing Superfund hazardous waste sites, I was stunned by the enormous environmental devastation that I witnessed throughout the country. I quickly realized how much more visible and dramatic the destruction was from an airplane. From a highway, one couldn’t see industrial waste ponds, hidden from public view, leaking in to local streams and rivers. From a country road, one couldn’t know that a dirt road in the woods led to a midnight dumping site where companies were illegally dumping toxic waste in a backwoods bayou. Seeing the extent of our environmental destruction, day after day, was a very disturbing experience for me. I felt like I was working in a war zone (which in fact I was—as the sociologist Andrew Ross wrote of my Waste Land series: “In the PR heyday of corporate greenwashing and the greening of the military, camouflaging the truth about ecological ruin can take many forms. But the most damning evidence cannot be hidden from the intrepid aerial photographer. Hanson’s Waste Land series is a stunning documentary of a century of organized state terrorism against the North American land, its species, and its peoples.”).

As a result of the catastrophic environmental devastation that I witnessed and photographed, I became increasingly concerned about and involved in trying to create more public awareness of these issues and working to help generate environmental legislation to deal with the problems. Although some people might see my work as a photographic artist investigating the contemporary American landscape and my work as an environmental activist concerned with helping to create more awareness about our land use and effect change in it as mutually exclusive, I see them as very much interconnected, even integral to each other.

Under the current administration the problems are getting worse, and the EPA is increasingly relaxing its regulations on industrial pollution. The outlook for our environment is not good right now. If there were an environmental counterpart to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Doomsday Clock, it would have suddenly jumped much closer to midnight.

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FC: What made you first start to document this transformation of the landscape?

DH: I was born and raised in Montana, and my photography has always had a strong connection to the landscape. In the late 1970s, after I had spent a number of years primarily photographing wilderness areas in Montana and throughout the West, my photographic work became increasingly concerned with the contemporary American landscape and the relationship of humans to their environment. My interest in our transformed landscape culminated in 1982, when I began an extended study of Colstrip, Montana, the site of one of the largest coal strip mines in North America and the coal-fired power plant and modern-day factory town that it surrounds. Over the course of three years, I photographed many aspects of the Colstrip operation, including making aerial views of the site. The Colstrip series was the beginning of my more critical examination of the late 20th-century American landscape as it reflects our culture and how we live now.

While I was working at Colstrip, I conceived of a project that would begin to describe how much our country had changed in the past 150 years. I gradually widened my scope to include all of Montana and the High Plains, eventually encompassing the entire country in an investigation of the American industrial and military landscape at the end of the 20th century. After Colstrip, Montana (1982–85), I created the series Minuteman Missile Sites (1984–85), aerial views of nuclear missile silos throughout Montana and the High Plains. When I received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1985, it provided me with the perfect opportunity and resources to apply what I had seen and learned at Colstrip and undertake a wide-ranging investigation of hazardous waste sites throughout the U.S. I later created “The Treasure State”: Montana 1889–1989 (1991–93), examining industrial sites across Montana and their impact on imperiled species. These four bodies of work began to reveal an entire pattern of terrain transformed by humans to serve their needs.

East Helena Smelter, East Helena, Montana, 1986. [Photo: © David T. Hanson]
My photographs deal with a classic subject in the history of art, the interaction of humans with nature. This is a subject that has been of particular interest to American artists and is inseparable from our shared heritage in the taming of the wilderness. The historian Leo Marx referred to it as “the machine in the garden.” At Colstrip and in Waste Land, this process is seen at its endpoint. The machine has ravaged, even consumed, the garden.

Waste Land was made in 1985-86 as I traveled to 45 states in one year making aerial photographs of Superfund hazardous waste sites. From more than 400,000 toxic waste sites and 500,000 abandoned mines throughout the United States, EPA had listed 888 as the most dangerous and in need of immediate attention. Beginning with this list of Superfund sites, I made a concerted effort to choose sites located throughout the entire country and to select sites that represented the broad spectrum of industries that have transformed our landscape over the past 150 years, from 19th-century mines, smelters, and wood-processing plants to landfills and illicit dumps, large petrochemical complexes, aerospace water-contamination sites, nuclear weapons plants, and nerve gas disposal areas.

Rocky Mountain Arsenal, Adams County, Colorado, 1986 (triptych). [Photo: © David T. Hanson]
As I was doing my research on the Superfund sites, I began to think of somehow contextualizing my aerial views of these hazardous waste sites. To create a richer and more conceptually engaging investigation of these sites (as opposed to simply exhibiting or publishing the isolated aerial views), I developed a triptych structure juxtaposing three different forms of representation for each place: a U.S. Geological Survey topographic map that I modified to indicate the site within its surrounding environment, my aerial photograph, and a contemporaneous U.S. Environmental Protection Agency site description that details the history of the site, its hazards, and the remedial action taken. The texts illustrate the bureaucratic nature of hazardous waste regulation and reveal some of the elaborate legal strategies that corporations and individuals have used to avoid responsibility for the contamination and the cleanup. Thus my aerial photograph is flanked on either side by a map and an EPA text, like the wings of a toxic altarpiece. The viewer is thereby confronted with three very different descriptions of the site, each with its own embedded codes of information, and the connections and reverberations between them.

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While I was creating these photographs, I saw them as monuments for the end of the 20th century. In examining how dramatically the American landscape has been transformed in the past 150 years, they began to reveal the new landscape that we have created and now inhabit. The images are a testament to how much our landscape has changed and how much has been lost. Displaying the dystopian side of progress, they form an extended investigation into nature and culture, the real and ideal, order and entropy. Landscapes of failed desire, these sites become both arena and metaphor for the most constructive and destructive aspects of the American spirit. These works become, finally, meditations on a ravaged landscape. These poisoned landscapes are tragic monuments to our carelessness, greed, and deceit.

FC: Tell me about the impact of your work in getting that important legislation passed in Montana in 1998? Who saw your work that started to mobilize to do something about the mining process in the state?

DH: I think it’s important to clarify that I come from a background in the fine arts, having apprenticed with the renowned photographers Minor White and Frederick Sommer, received an MFA degree in Photography from Rhode Island School of Design, and subsequently taught photography and art history at RISD for nearly 20 years. I generally avoid “labeling” myself, and I don’t think of the categories of “artist” and “environmental activist” as being mutually exclusive. As a photographer I work in two very different worlds that only occasionally overlap: as an artist investigating (or “documenting,” if you prefer) the contemporary American landscape, and as an environmental activist concerned with helping to create more awareness about our land use and effect change in it.

How do I hope that my images might help create cultural change? I can give two examples. In 1998, when Aperture published my book Waste Land: Meditations on a Ravaged Landscape, I worked with NRDC and the Mineral Policy Center on a coordinated campaign in Washington, D.C., for environmental legislation. We gave a copy of the book to every member of Congress (435 representatives and 100 senators), and we held over 50 individual meetings with key senators and congressmen, discussing with them upcoming environmental legislation that we hoped they could support.

Later that year, I worked with the Montana Environmental Information Center and the Mineral Policy Center on legislation to ban cyanide heap-leach mining in Montana. (I had already worked with the Mineral Policy Center on the earlier campaign in Washington, D.C., and the director of MPC asked me to help with the cyanide heap-leach mining campaign.)

To give you some background, the Zortman-Landusky Gold Mine in north-central Montana is located on what was originally known as Spirit Mountain, considered sacred by the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre Native American tribes. From 1979 to 1998, Spirit Mountain was completely destroyed—crushed into ore and processed for gold by Pegasus Gold of Canada. The Zortman-Landusky mine used the common mining technique called cyanide leaching to extract gold from crushed rock. The toxic waste produced from this process was stored in open pits at the site. From 1982-1998, more than one dozen leaks and discharges profoundly and permanently altered the regional water supplies of the surrounding communities and native lands. The Zortman-Landusky mine used 1 million pounds of cyanide annually. One gram of cyanide can kill a person. In addition, acidic drainage from the mine is so severe that water released from the mine must be treated forever. After taking $400 million dollars of gold from U.S. public lands, the Pegasus board of directors voted themselves multi-million-dollar bonuses, declared bankruptcy (on January 16, 1998), abandoned the mining operation, and left the $50 million-$100 million clean-up cost to the U.S. taxpayers. Under the provisions of the Mining Law of 1872, Pegasus Gold of Canada paid no royalties to the U.S. Treasury and they had no responsibility for cleanup. Their only obligation to the U.S. was the $5 per acre leasing fee they were charged while operating the mine.

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As a result of the Pegasus Gold debacle, the Montana Environmental Information Center and the Mineral Policy Center began working on legislation to ban cyanide heap-leach mining in Montana. They enlisted my help, and copies of my book Waste Land: Meditations on a Ravaged Landscape were sent to Montana legislators and public policy makers. My photographs of the Pegasus Gold Mine in Zortman-Landusky were used by the environmental organizations to help educate the public about the dangers of this highly wasteful and poisonous mining process. In November 1998, Montana voters overwhelmingly passed citizen initiative #I-137, banning cyanide process open-pit gold and silver mining. Montana remains the only state in the United States to prohibit cyanide heap-leach mining. The directors of the Montana Environmental Information Center and the Mineral Policy Center told me that the use of my book and photographs played a significant role in the passage of the bill.

FC: What is your main focus right now when it comes to environmental activism?

DH: Since 2011, I have been working with national and Montana environmental organizations (NRDC, Sierra Club, National Audubon Society, Northern Plains Resource Council, Montana Environmental Information Center, and the Idaho Conservation League) on coal strip-mining, clean energy, and the stopping of exports of Montana and Wyoming coal to China. In 2012 I traveled to Seattle to participate in several town hall meetings organized by Sierra Club Northwest to generate public awareness about the Colstrip plant (the largest utility in Washington gets approximately one-third of its power from Colstrip) and encourage the utility to retire the Colstrip plant and replace its power with clean energy. I gave audiovisual presentations on my Colstrip series in Bellevue and Bainbridge Island, with additional presentations in Seattle to media and invited guests. In 2014, I worked with the Montana Environmental Information Center and Sierra Club Northwest on their media campaign regarding Colstrip’s leaking toxic ash impoundments, using billboards, radio online ads, a website, video, postcards, and phone banking, in an effort to get Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality to make the owners of the Colstrip plant clean up its leaking ash ponds. Each of the members of the Montana State Board of Land Commissioners, in addition to key legislators, received a copy of my book Colstrip, Montana.

In late 2016, these environmental organizations celebrated the denial of permits for six deep coal export terminals in Washington and Oregon as well as the denial of mining permits for the proposed Otter Creek Coal Mine in central Montana to supply those international exports. The denial of permits was the result of a long record of public opposition extending from the mines to the Pacific coast to the proposed 16 additional 1.5 mile-long trains traveling across Montana, Idaho, and Washington, disrupting communities, increasing air pollution, blocking railroad crossings, and lowering property values along the tracks. The proposed developer of the Otter Creek Mine, Arch Coal Inc., the second-largest U.S. coal company, subsequently declared bankruptcy.

In December 2017, Puget Sound Energy decided to close its Colstrip power plants as part of its transition to more environmentally sound energy production.

One current campaign in which my photographs are being used is to force the substantive cleanup of the Colstrip plant’s highly toxic coal ash ponds (as of August 2018, Colstrip’s coal ash ponds are leaking 200,000,000 gallons per year, violating the “zero discharge facility” stipulation in the power plant’s original permit).

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And I hope that the publication of Waste Land will help increase public awareness of our environmental issues. The writer Wendell Berry’s thoughts on my aerial views of Superfund sites offer a profound example of what I hope people might learn from my photographs:

“It is unfortunately supposable that some people will account for these photographic images as “abstract art,” or will see them as “beautiful shapes.” But anybody who troubles to identify in these pictures the things that are readily identifiable (trees, buildings, roads, vehicles, etc.) will see that nothing in them is abstract, and that their common subject is a monstrous ugliness.

The power of these photographs is in their terrifying–because they’re undeniable–particularity. They are representations of bad art, if by art we mean the ways and products of human work. If some of these results look abstract—unidentifiable, or unlike anything we have seen before—that is because nobody foresaw, because nobody cared, what they would look like. They are the inevitable consequences of our habit of working without imagination and affection. They prove that our large-scale industrial projects are at once experimental, in the sense that we do not know what their consequences will be, and definitive because of the virtual permanence of these same consequences. And what we can see in these vandalized and perhaps irreparable landscapes we are obliged to understand as symbolic of what we cannot see: the steady seeping of poison into our world and our bodies.

David Hanson’s art is here put forthrightly to the use of showing us what most of us, in fact, have not seen before, do not wish to see now, and yet must see if we are to save ourselves and our land from such work and such results. He has given us the topography of our open wounds.

FC: Obviously, many environmental protections have been stripped away under the Trump administration. Is it too late to reverse those changes under future administrations?

Although I am a perpetual optimist, I have grave concerns about substantive cleanup of Superfund sites and the other toxic sites throughout the U.S., as well as the quality of our environment in general. The staggering extent of the pollution (more than 400,000 hazardous waste sites and 500,000 abandoned mines throughout the country), the enormous costs involved in their real (as opposed to superficial) cleanup, the current political climate in this country (especially under the present administration), and the extraordinary burden that would be born by the government (rather than the responsible industries) all weigh heavily against any realistic hope for the true reclamation of most of these Superfund sites and other despoiled environments. I don’t think it’s ever “too late” to create a healthier, more ecologically sound way of relating to our environment, but the challenges for our culture are enormous.

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As one example, consider what is probably the most dangerous Superfund site and how it has been dealt with. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Rocky Flats Plant (Plate No. 1 in Waste Land) in Golden, Colorado, on the northwest edge of Denver, provides a particularly disconcerting example of the “creative,” cost-effective solutions that the new “green” military is finding for the enormous cleanups it faces. From 1951-1989 the Rocky Flats Plant manufactured the plutonium cores for the nuclear and thermonuclear weapons produced in the United States. (For a brief overview of the Rocky Flats Plant and its environmental hazards, see my essay, “Notes on Waste Land,” pages 13-15 in Waste Land.)

In 1996, the Department of Energy (DOE) estimated that the total cleanup costs for Rocky Flats would be $100 billion. Yet in 2005, the DOE declared that it had completed the cleanup of Rocky Flats for a cost of only $7 billion (although the industrial core of Rocky Flats remains a high-security site whose extensive environmental hazards have not yet been addressed). Five thousand six hundred acres surrounding the weapons plants had been established in 2001 as the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, to be managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in spite of the fact that this land had been heavily contaminated with plutonium over the course of 40 years from extensive dumping and more than 200 plutonium fires at the plant. In 1975-76, a DOE contractor had found 100 billion particles of plutonium per acre on the land that is now a “wildlife refuge” and is currently about to be opened to the public.

Perdido Ground Water Contamination, Perdido, Alabama, 1986. [Photo: © David T. Hanson]
Bear in mind—as I discuss in my essay—that plutonium is radioactive, highly flammable, and carcinogenic, and it will remain deadly for more than 250,000 years. It is one of the most toxic substances produced by humans. One-millionth of a gram inhaled and lodged in the lungs is sufficient to cause cancer, and it has also been shown to produce substantial genetic damage. Now, as the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge gets ready to open to the public, a coalition of citizens, scientists, and environmental groups is fighting to keep it shut because of the serious health risks that it poses. Their lawsuit claims that construction and development of this “wildlife refuge,” as well as hikers, bikers, and equestrians using the trails, will release plutonium-contaminated dust into the environment, raising cancer risks for the entire region.

As I discuss in my essay, Rocky Flats and the Hanford Nuclear Reservation are the two most heavily contaminated radioactive sites in the U.S. Although a great deal of surface removal/cleanup has been done at both sites, the primary environmental hazards have not yet been addressed. Indeed, the technology does not yet exist to deal with their extensive radioactive contamination or to begin to “reclaim” these poisoned landscapes. How can we neutralize or even safely contain the radioactive material that will remain lethal for more than 250,000 years? The solutions don’t exist, and even if they did the U.S. government wouldn’t spend the necessary funds because it would cost so much. Therefore, the military’s policy for the enormous cleanups it faces amounts to superficial cleanup, containment, PR, and denial.

Although my photographs were made over 30 years ago, they seem even more relevant today, given our growing concerns about energy production, environmental degradation, and climate change—and given the current administration’s broad dismantling of the Environmental Protection Agency, environmental regulations, and Superfund. The problems are getting worse, and the EPA is increasingly relaxing its regulations on industrial pollution.

FC: In addition to viewing your photographs, what works to get people to care about the destruction of their environment?

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DH: It seems clear that public education and awareness can make a real difference and inspire substantive change and environmental legislation—from the actions of local citizens’ advocacy groups (like Lois Gibb’s Center for Health, Environment & Justice in Niagara Falls, New York) to Montana’s banning of the highly toxic cyanide heap-leach mining process to nations throughout the world adopting policies to deal with climate change.

Nevertheless, I think it’s important to reiterate that I am an artist and not a public policy maker. And if my work presents no political or economic solutions, I would suggest that, as the historian Leo Marx concludes at the end of his book The Machine in the Garden:

The inability of our [artists] to create a surrogate for the ideal of the middle landscape can hardly be accounted artistic failure. By incorporating in their work the root conflict of our culture, they have clarified our situation. They have served us well. To change the situation, we require new symbols of possibility, and although the creation of those symbols is in some measure the responsibility of artists, it is in greater measure the responsibility of society. The machine’s sudden entrance into the garden presents a problem that ultimately belongs not to art but to politics.

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