On a joyous Sunday we would pile into the 1949 Mercury and head for the mine sand dumps. In the boot (trunk) of the car, we had stowed corrugated cardboard cut from old boxes. These precious pieces of cardboard we shaped, as best we understood, like sledges. My father regularly drove us out to those piles of golden sand, so soft and warm in the summer sun. And here we would spend happy hours climbing up the sand and sliding down, and climbing up and sliding down, until we were exhausted and covered in the golden sand.
This was better than the beach. We only got to the beach once a year after a grueling drive down steep mountains and once there we were constantly reminded of the sharks that waited in the water and we were able to be on the beach only in the mornings for the wind blew so hard in the afternoons and the sand got so hot, we sought shade on the grass around the hotel. We had plenty of grass at home.
Once I mastered my one-speed (one gear) bike I was allowed to ride down to the slimes dams (tailings impoundments). We would explore every nook and cranny of the vast silent lands around the slimes dam. I would wonder at the brilliant blues and greens and oranges of the ponds everywhere around the dams. When a kid was killed in the collapse of a cave he cut into the slime, we were forbidden to go there again. But we did. The injunction only made the slimes dam more exciting.
Many years later I went back to these sacred places. They had all gone. The sand and the slime alike had been taken back to extract the gold and the uranium that they did not get out the first time.
As a young engineer I went to a diamond mine in Botswana. I saw a mine sand dump there in the middle of the desert. I persuaded my host to drive me out and I walked around the dump and climbed the dump, and they thought I was mad. I enquired how they would stabilize this dump—for by now environmentalist awareness had begun to kick in. “No problem,” I was told, “the wind will simply blow this pile away in a few years and this place will be as flat as the desert again.”
In my readings of the geomorphology of the lands east of the Rockies I saw somewhere a calculation of the quantity of material eroded from the rising Rockies by water and by wind. About fifty percent of the erosion in the last 65 million years has been by water, the other fifty percent has been by wind. And you can believe this on a windy day in Iowa atop the rise where the farm house sits.
One of my first assignments as a new consulting engineer was to come up with a way to reduce dust from the slimes dams around Johannesburg. The dust really was a nuisance. This assignment gave me chance to wonder around all the old slimes dams again. I could not believe I was being paid to do what I was forbidden to do as a child on a bike. We did studies and deliberations and cost estimates and then we mixed cement with the upper layer of the slime. Vegetation really is no good for it gets cut down at the knees by the windblown sands. I think all the dams where I put concrete have gone back to the mills for gold and uranium extraction.
There were no fences around any of these places. If a mine did put up a fence one week, by the next it was gone. Stolen for its intrinsic value or use in those forbidding slums where the workers lived. Even today in Vancouver, theft of manhole covers for metal is a problem, so nothing really changes. Some good people muttered about the absence of a fence, about security, and about dead children, but that was Africa and that was the way it was.
Imagine my surprise when I asked why there were no fences planned around the reclaimed Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action (UMTRA) project sites, and I was told because not even America can ensure the integrity of a fence over a thousand years. And so for five years I traveled to most of the UMTRA sites and got paid once again to climb on unfenced old mine slimes dams and sand piles and plan their remediation sans fence.