The Historical Geography of Lead in the Sonoran Desert

Cyrus Hester, Arizona State University

This paper is concerned with the history of lead pollution in the Sonoran Desert—as well as the political, economic, and geochemical factors that shaped it. By tracking the coupling of energy resources and hazardous metals through time and space, we detail how the material basis of economic activity combined with the politics of segregation produced the modern, material geographies of risk in the region. This occurred over three broad phases characterized by occupation, industrialization, and urbanization. The conquests and occupation of the Desert by Spanish, and later American, interests were driven by the pursuit of argentiferous lead and the fuelwood required to extract it. With the arrival of the railroad, the energy for extraction was provided by fossil fuels, removing the traditional limits on production imposed by the arid setting. Meanwhile, electrification and wartime production inspired greater demand for base metals, such as copper, which co-existed alongside lead in many of the richer mineral deposits of the Desert. As these metals were liberated from the rural landscapes of the region, they were reinterred into the Desert’s sprawling urban environments. Most significantly, an extensive urban form predicated on automobiles fueled by leaded gasoline resulted in the widespread release of the hazardous metal. In the process, the biogeochemistry of both urban and rural settings in the Sonoran Desert were transformed. And because of the politics structuring the production of lead-borne risk in the Desert, that transformation came to be defined as much by place as identity.

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 Presented in Session 190. Environmental site selection in America