In the Red: Earth Debt in a Phosphate Mining Watershed

Authors: Zachary Caple*,
Topics: Water Resources and Hydrology, Anthropocene
Keywords: Multispecies landscapes, industrial trauma, value
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/10/2018
Start / End Time: 2:40 PM / 4:20 PM
Room: Galerie 2, Marriott, 2nd Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Thirty years ago a large sinkhole opened up in the floodplain of the Peace River in Central Florida. During the summer wet season, this sinkhole, christened Gator Sink, forms a distributary — a hydrological formation in which water flows out of, rather than into, the body of a major river. How did such a backwards and seemingly unnatural geological formation arise? The answer lies with the immense phosphate mining industry that dominates the region. Process water for refinery operations depletes groundwater and the construction of huge impoundments for storage of waste clays prevents aquifer recharge. The outcome is a fractured hydrogeology in which the Peace River is starved of flow, springs die, and water reverses course into man-made voids. Groundwater scientists refer to this region as the Big Red Hole. In this paper, I explore the technopolitics and multispecies ecology of the Big Red Hole and the phosphate mining region known as Bone Valley. Building on Jason Moore’s theory of cheap nature, I argue that Bone Valley exemplifies a landscape of negative value forms. These negative values manifest as literal holes in the Earth. I argue that mining works through pipelines that export capitalist value from resource frontiers to civilizational centers, leaving behind landscapes of “Earth debt.” Just as water flows out of the Peace River into its mining-created distributary, I contend that the livability of the landscape is being drained from Bone Valley. Restoration can only partially plug the hole.

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