Geoff Manaugh – The Mr Coffee effect

things 19/20

Every morning I make coffee. The aptly named grounds form miniature fractal landscapes of hills and valleys, a distinctive, almost Hawaiian topography of black soil. These mountains and plateaus are flooded, soaked and filtered by a river of boiling water, a deluge that picks up tailings and chemical residues we prize for making the heart race. Machines have been manufactured to do this for us.

Coffee is a matter of landscapes and erosion; we drink the run-off. If brewing coffee is a geological process, perhaps coffee-like processes occur elsewhere, geologically, inside other terrains.

Montana’s Golden Sunlight mine. Golden Sunlight will soon cease operation; no one knows what comes next. Will the mine be back-filled, the gravel of an excavated earth pushed back into the void and packed there – ‘the mountain put back together again,’ as The New York Times puts it – or will it simply be left an open wound?

Active since 1982, Golden Sunlight may soon become a mere ‘hole in the ground,’ albeit a monumental one: ‘The Chrysler Building and the Washington Monument could slide down the gullet of the great pit, one atop the other, and would only just peek above the old ridgeline like a periscope.’

This sunlit, Montanan void has all the makings of an earthwork sculpture, some fantastic new absence installed into the ground as part of a deliberate artistic strategy. But Golden Sunlight is, in many ways, far too successful even to be a work of the avant-garde: the scale of its excavated void is so provocatively uncomfortable that the mine has become almost too difficult to look at.

On this aesthetic level alone, locals say, Golden Sunlight should be filled, the mountain ‘put back together again. ’An absence on this scale becomes an affront to sensation itself.

If aesthetics is on one side of the issue, coffee is definitely on the other. ‘Some mines, ’we’re reminded, ‘should not be filled.’ Rain as well as other, subsurface hydrological processes can become ‘contaminated by the mine’s waste rock, ’in a process dubbed by mine engineers ‘the Mr Coffee effect. ’As water soaks back down through the tailings, washing heavy metals into the water supply, the geological cross-section of an entire landscape begins to function like a giant sleeve of coffee grounds.

These deep and toxic water-percolation processes – also called ‘acid mine drainage’ – are ‘prevalent across the West.’ The Mr Coffee Effect ‘has plagued metal mines since at least the days of the Romans.’

While Mr Coffee is often a plague, goldmines depend upon their own coffeemaker excavation technique, domesticating drainage for mining purposes: ‘cyanide heap leaching’: ‘Consider a ring,’ we’re told. ‘For that one ounce of gold miners dig up and haul away 30 tons of rock and sprinkle it with diluted cyanide, which separates the gold from the rock. Before they are through, miners at some of the largest mines move a half million tons of earth a day, [and] pile it in mounds that can rival the Great Pyramids.’ These ‘new man-made mountains are lined with irrigation hoses that silently Trickle millions of gallons of cyanide solution over the rock for years. (…) At Some mines in Nevada, 100 tons or more of earth have to be excavated for a single ounce of gold.’

Gravel-filtered by a trickle of cyanide, gold is the coffee these mines produce. The resulting pollution is extraordinary; it is geology out of place, a brewed runoff of chemical residues and tailings released: ‘Sulfides in that rock will react with oxygen, making sulphuric acid. That acid pollutes and it also frees heavy metals like cadmium, lead and mercury…The chain reaction can go on for centuries.’

In the process, ‘metal mines, including gold mines, have become the near-equivalent of nuclear waste dumps that must be tended in perpetuity’ – an eternal timeframe that is not taken lightly by the mining industry and its governmental supporters. It is, however, underestimated.

A man-made geological void few people will ever see, yet perhaps an engineering marvel on a par with anything thus attempted in human history, is the United States Department of Energy’s domed, subterranean mausoleum for nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Yucca Mountain’s explicit purpose – its very design – anticipates not centuries, but hundreds upon hundreds of centuries of hydro-geological phenomena. Yucca Mountain must never fall victim to Mr Coffee. As such, Yucca Mountain verges on science-fiction. The site operates through a so-called ‘repository concept,’ with forecasts on the geological timescale: ‘As long as the waste stays in solid form and remains deep underground, it will not be harmful because layers of rock and dirt will shield its radiation. However, if enough water contacted the waste, over time it could break it down into tiny radioactive particles and then carry the particles into the environment.’ This, of course, is the Mr Coffee Effect – something the architects of Yucca Mountain cannot use and must avoid. ‘Therefore, our strategy is to keep the waste as dry as possible for as long as possible. With this strategy, the waste will likely remain isolated for tens of thousands of years.’

Such hubris in an era of nonlinear climate change borders on the comic. Yucca Mountain will require landscapes of absolute aridity on a timescale that exceeds the human imagination. Architecture alone could not possibly keep Yucca Mountain dry; indeed, machines have been manufactured to do this for us: Nevada’s atomic mausoleum will side-step the Mr Coffee Effect by becoming thoroughly robot-controlled. For this, the site will use ‘advanced autonomous material handling processes.’

This abstracted, robot-controlled geometry of underground containment chambers – a fully automated pharaonic repository – has been built to rival the longevity of continental plates. Entire Pacific archipelagos will have disappeared beneath the rising waves of global warming; the African rift valley will have torn wider by nearly a mile – but Yucca Mountain will still be dry, a robotic anti-coffeemaker, embedded in the earth.



Johnson, Kirk, ‘As a Gold Mine Prepares to Close, Montana Argues Over the Hole in the Ground’, The New York Times, 10 July 2005

Perlez, Jane & Johnson, Kirk, ‘Behind Gold’s Glitter: Torn Lands and Pointed Questions’, The New York Times, 24 October 2005

US Department of Energy, Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, Yucca Mountain Project Homepage:

US Department of Energy, Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, Yucca Mountain Project: ‘Science and Technology Program Strategic Plan’, November 2004

The Yucca Mountain Project is in flux. As of early 2010, federal funding was removed, but not before ‘… about $9 billion (£5.6 billion) was spent on the first phase of concrete tunnels and chambers designed to keep waste safe for at least a million years. A 5 mile (8km) U-shaped tunnel was bored into the side of the extinct volcano, which is inside the Nevada nuclear test site’. Despite this, The President has made clear that Yucca Mountain is not an option for waste storage.’ Yucca Mountain might stay dry, but it will also be empty.

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