Toxic legacies of mining debris in California: The heritage of mercury bio-accumulation

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Toxic is often understood in opposition to purity. Its negative valence comes from a 'modern' view of nature as pure, pristine, unsullied, and untouched. Toxic signals infiltration, disturbance, boundary-crossing. Toxic appears as a problem to be solved; a deviance to be corrected. This chapter argues to the contrary, that toxic is generative, disruptive and productive. Toxic undermines prevailing modes of thought around authenticity, vulnerability and the essential right-ness of securing from decay (DeSilvey 2017). Toxic is an ontological breaching that mutates and re-organizes bodies, while refuting orthodox temporalities of inheritance, sustainability and ‘future generations’ that underpin mainstream environmentalism. The chapter shows how toxic might be re-deployed in a broader politics of environmental justice. To that end I relay a biography of the hydraulic mining debris that washed down the Central Valley in the late 1880s and featured in the famous environmental ruling ‘Woodruff v The North Bloomfield Gravel mining Company.’ I connect government reports from the California Debris Commission, the California State Mining Bureau, and campaign literature from Anti-debris Association with a review of the debris’ contemporary designation as heritage to highlight both its hidden emancipatory effects (Beck 2015) and its potential to instigate activism for a biological citizenship (Petryna 2004).
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationToxic Heritage
Subtitle of host publicationLegacies, Futures, and Environmental Injustice
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherTaylor & Francis
ISBN (Electronic)9781003365259
ISBN (Print)9781032429977
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 21 Oct 2022

Publication series

NameKey Issues in Cultural Heritage


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