a short story by Jake M

He was no stranger to the job of remediation. It had taken him across the West, cleaning the leftovers of an industry that builds the world. He recalled his first job, draining pools of toxic waste-water left to bake in the Nevadan desert, set next to stark white rectangles of buildings, the sun-bleached skeleton of a defunct gold mining operation. Twelve-hour days spent trudging around in protective suits and fume masks in the dry summer heat, sweating through shirt after shirt, scrubbing the earth of the mine’s footprint. He had majored in geology in college, spending semesters studying the deepest layers of the Earth, reading the stories they told in the language they were written. Colorado was once submerged beneath a shallow, warm sea, the mountains once a scenic, sandy beach. Once was, now wasn’t, the record stored in layers of sandstone and shale seen in the cross-sections of roadcuts along I-70. His senior quote in high school had been one from Neil Armstrong, “geologists have a saying- rocks remember.”

He questioned the philosophy of it as he’d travel for work, if it was possible to make rocks forget, to undo the impressions made on them. One could erase, like a Great Unconformity, pummeling millions of years of rock away with wind and rain, like tearing pages from a book, but could they lose the marks of their lithic memory without being destroyed? Could you scrub it away, or what if it held those memories in ways we don’t see? He never had time to puzzle it out before he needed to work, but he was of the mind that you couldn’t. On the plane he studied a cut on his hand, the way his skin would knit itself back together, scabbing over, scarring up.

The next job brought him back home, to Colorado, remediating a dilapidated uranium mine high up on a mountain. Standard procedure, the suits, the masks, the tools, the caution. He’d been tasked with an initial exploration of sorts, using his experience and expertise to create a plan. Nobody knew what was in there, or how to even start, and he was the surgeon delving into the earth to extract what ailed it. He slipped the coveralls on over his clothing and adjusted the mask and goggles over his face before assembling a small team of workers to assist him. They started at the mouth of the mineshaft, dark, gaping, a chill wafting from the murk inside. It had been cleared for personnel to enter prior to his arrival, so he led the way into the tunnel.

He explained to the crew his plan while surveying the interior and reviewing his notes, following the stripes of granite intrusions and gneiss as they traced along the shaft walls like veins, the interior wooden frames holding the tunnel up like a ribcage. The necessary remedies came in the form of clearing out old equipment and decontaminating the soil, as well as potentially alleviating some acidic drainage that he had discovered was seeping along the floor of the shaft, the source of which was from a capped off part of the mine system. He put it on the back burner at the time, wanting to give it a closer look before steps were taken to begin remediation. The crew began cleaning, taking care with objects potentially contaminated by radioactive sediment. Extracting tools and objects, collecting soil to decontaminate, digging retention walls nearby to abate any pollutants from seeping beyond the site as they probed into the mine. All very standard.

The wall where the acidic drainage originated from was examined further by him, his hypothesis being it was a cap for a retention well, holding back a pool of dangerous, toxic water, brewing for decades in the ground, acidifying and taking on the ions of countless dangerous metals. Cadmium, arsenic, lead, uranium, all the bad things. The water would cause their Geiger counters to crackle loudly as it dribbled from the earth. To his knowledge, as it would leak out further, a certain genus of bacterium, Acidithiobacillus, would cause the water to rapidly acidify as it came into contact with oxygen, making the concept of simple drainage as a technique problematic. It was a sensitive operation, finding the cap and removing the tailings carefully, like excising a tumor. He carefully dug around it with a shovel, instructing the crew to follow the procedure and example he’d laid out. They did so, leaving him to take a quick break before resuming his work.

It was a typical dry summer day in the Rockies, he could see the promise of afternoon rain accumulating over the nearby mountaintops. He sat in the back of the company truck after cleaning himself off, the coveralls tied around his waist while he took a minute to eat, watching the crew continue their work. They erected signs around the perimeter of the area, warning wayward hikers of the mineshaft’s dangerous elements. Even as they carved out the rusted, pointy metal, the greasy, gray pitchblende ore, the tainted, caustic water, the mine remained dangerous. The pits, the falls, the bad air and the collapsing, hazards inherent to the structure, the mountain itself keen to swallow it as the frames in the tunnels creaked and groaned, like flesh sealing a cut. He pictured jagged posts of pine logs jutting out of fallen tunnels like a scar juts out from skin, healed, but not forgotten. He then heard yelling.

Jumping out from the bed of the truck he watched members of the crew run from the mouth of the mine, coveralls stained like doctors just out of surgery. He felt panic spread through his stomach like freezing ice, watching a stream of blood red water begin to pour from the mouth of the mineshaft. The Geiger counter strapped to his side crackled deafeningly as it seeped around his boots. He ran up to the entrance of the mine, the fluid pooling beneath as it wept out of the tunnel floor. The work lights around the cap showed it had busted while being excavated, water spraying out from a long, thin crack. The crew members piled sandbags around the stream, trying to box it in, divert it to a retention pond, but it was all to no avail. He heard the sound of the spray start to change, and watched the crack around the plug give way.

A deluge of sanguine fluid surged forth from the mouth of the cave, splattering the legs of his coveralls with bright red. It cascaded past him and past the sandbags, past the retention walls, hemorrhaging down the side of the mountain. He stood, paralyzed by shock, watching the scarlet-tinged water flow down, down, down. It gushed relentlessly, nothing to contain it, no gauze to stem the flow, no bandage to fix the wound. Cadmium, arsenic, lead, uranium, all the bad things, spilling from the mountain into the ground, spilling into the dirt and water below, until it could spill no more. Three million gallons, 11 million liters, 400 thousand cubic feet, from the mountain unto the earth, wept like tears, sloughed like skin, shed like blood.


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