Industrial Scars: The Art of Environmental Pollution

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A photographer simultaneously captures the beauty and horror of human pollution, from thick oil spills to dirty coal mining

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If there's a silver lining to be found amongst all the wear and tear humans put on our planet, it could very well be found in the photography of J Henry Fair. His photographs of oil spills, industrial pollution and coal mining are so eye-catching they almost extenuate the industrial scars you are witnessing -- almost. While media coverage of such degradation, like the Gulf oil spill, has been confined to what can best be described as disaster porn, Fair's work -- both artistic and cerebral -- could easily be mistaken for Abstract Expressionism.

The above photograph, for example, seems to actually defy gravity as green and purple tributaries scratch at the cotton-candy-like nebula bearing down on it from above. The whole vascular rainbow appears to be alive, or just the product of a really bad acid trip. As beautiful as the photograph is, what you are looking at, unfortunately, is the effluvia from aluminum production as it spreads across Earth and sea, staining and changing the ecology of everything in its path.

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When bauxite (raw aluminum ore) is processed into aluminum oxide, or alumina, it's first bathed in a solution of sodium hydroxide (lye) at very high temperatures. Aluminum compounds in the bauxite dissolve while other compounds remain behind: iron oxides, sand, clay, some titanium oxides and even radioactive materials, such as uranium or thorium. That resulting red slurry (pictured above) has a lethal pH that can easily destroy plant and animal life, inflict chemical burns and even damage airways if the fumes are inhaled.

Most refineries store this waste in open ponds where the water evaporates over several years where it is then buried or mixed with soil. Alas, those reservoirs can leak and flood, as we saw with the toxic sludge torrent that inundated villages in Hungary late last year. While the soil contains useful elements, there is no economically viable way to extract them. Keep in mind that aluminum oxide requires a second process, electrolysis, to make the aluminum metal used in soda cans and foil.

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While Fair has seen some pop culture success photographing album art for musicians like Yo-Yo Ma, he prefers more eco-centric subjects: herbicide manufacturing waste swirling with limegreen highlights (above); the baby blue brushstrokes of hydro-seeding a mining site (below).

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"I always had a big mouth, and pretty much always tried to use photography to express myself," he says. Fair got his start at the age of 14 when he stole his father's Kodak Retina and began photographing much of the same things he does now: people, machines, icons. A graduate of Fordham University in New York City, Fair headed the school's photo labs until he graduated in 1983. After college, he worked in construction until he could support himself on photography alone.

Early on, when he still used film, Fair consulted scientists to identify and understand what he was seeing but "That is less of a problem now. Many processes and shapes have become quite familiar." Technology has also played a role. Digital cameras and tools like Google Earth make parsing and identifying the images a lot easier which previously could require a return trip.

His color palette is so flirtatious you might actually question their authenticity, but Fair confirms that "what one sees in the photos is what was there [on land.]"

These photographs transcend the very wrongs they expose. In their simplest form, without any captions, they are just pretty pictures. However, sometimes Fair does lean towards the explicit, like with the overburden from coal mining pictured below.

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According to the NRDC, the coal industry has flattened over 500 mountains in the Appalachian Mountain region. The affected area spans across four states including Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee, and totals around 1.2 million acres; nearly half is in Kentucky alone. The resulting overburden from this devastation has permanently extinguished 2,000 miles of streams and headwaters responsible for providing drinking water for millions of Americans, notes Earthjustice. Every week coal companies detonate explosives equivalent to that of an atomic bomb.

Don't expect the industry to suspend this destruction any time soon. America is home to one-fourth of the world's coal and they surpass global petroleum reserves in energy content. The U.S. Department of Energy claims that half of the electricity used domestically comes from coalfired plants which makes burning coal as problematic as harvesting it. Every year 140 million tons of coal ash waste is produced, reports the NRDC, containing nearly 100,000 tons of toxic metals, yet the Environmental Protection Agency does not regulate coal ash because it does not consider it to be toxic. But the magma-like waste, as it flows from the power plant that produced it, hardly looks ... healthy.

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Fair believes we all play a part in this wear and tear on our planet. It's not just Big Oil or the coal industry; it's everyone. Everything and everyone is connected. Yes, it's a bit of a cliche but that doesn't make it any less true. One example is how bauxite pollution has a symbiotic relationship with toxic coal ash waste, because the production of aluminum consumes five percent of all energy generated domestically.

Unfortunately, these scars are plentiful. So much that Fair has compiled some of the most horrifying, yet beautiful, disasters into the book The Day After Tomorrow: Images of Our Earth in Crisis. And while he's quick to point out the offense, Fair does not name names.

All photos courtesy of J Henry Fair.

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Jerry James Stone is an environmental blogger at TreeHugger and social media consultant. His work has also appeared in MAKE magazine.

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