The Okefenokee titanium dioxide blues

From a Pleistocene beach to your Oreo cookie, some white pigment which may or may not brighten your day.

Topics: Globalization, How the World Works,

Effective Saturday, the price for titanium dioxide will jump by $120 a metric ton, announced Dupont Titanium Technologies on Tuesday. A subsidiary of the E.I. Dupont de Nemours chemical multinational, Dupont Titanium Technologies is the largest manufacturer of titanium dioxide in the world. Most often employed as a white pigment, titanium dioxide finds its way into scores of industrial applications and products, including semiconductor manufacturing and sunscreen. It is also found in “toothpaste, plastic picnic forks, creamy Oreo filling… and even the M on M&Ms.”

Always on the alert for random enlightenment, How the World Works became curious. Why the price hike? Was there a shortage of titanium ore, precipitating fears of peak titanium? Or was some new industrial niche booming, creating surging demand, as with the solar power/polysilicon connection?

The immediate answer — ho hum. Demand is up, but the main driver appears to be an across-the-board rise in costs; for the energy necessary to process the chemicals, for the logistics of transporting it across the globe, and so on. Ore seems to be plentiful, and well distributed across the globe. Move along, move along, nothing to see here.

But even as my interest was fading, a couple of sentences from a Dupont press release caught my eye. “The company operates plants at DeLisle, Miss.; New Johnsonville, Tenn.; Edge Moor, Del.; Altamira, Mexico; and Kuan Yin, Taiwan; all of which use the chloride manufacturing process. The company also operates a plant in Uberaba, Brazil, for finishing titanium dioxide and a mine in Starke, Fla.”

The north Florida town of Starke doesn’t make international headlines very often, although its Wal-Mart superstore earned it some quality time in HTWW a couple of years ago. But having gone to high school in Gainesville, Fla., just down the road, seeing the name always stops me in my tracks, summoning up the humid embrace of Florida summers and the delicious promise of an afternoon thunderstorm. Now I was even more curious. How could Starke come to be in the same paragraph as Taiwan, where I had also lived, and to which I keep returning, intellectually, as I seek a better understanding of the forces of globalization. A titanium dioxide intersection between northern Florida and Taiwan? It would not be an exaggeration to say that such things are what I live for.

But a titanium mine in Starke? I had been under the impression that such things were more likely to be found in Nevada or Australia or New Guinea. As it happens, Dupont’s Starke mine is one of only two locations in the United States where titanium- bearing ores are currently mined.

Dupont’s titanium mine is in a geological formation known as Trail Ridge, which rises a hundred or so feet above sea level while reaching north from Gainesville up to Jesup, Georgia, a town whose name I had never seen referenced anywhere before today except by my high school friend Jim Sullivan, who has family in Jesup. Trail Ridge is the remains of a sand bar created some 250,000 years ago, during the Pleistocene era, when what geologists like to call a “transgressing sea” pushed the coastlines of Florida and Southern Georgia 50-70 miles inland from where they currently reside. Over many thousands of years, the ceaseless action of waves and water precipitated the deposition of a variety of heavy minerals, including titanium-bearing ilmenite and leucoxene and rutile, into the sand dunes that piled up on top of the long sand bar. When the ocean receded, Trail Ridge emerged. The Trail Ridge “orebody” is currently regarded as the largest known repository of heavy minerals in the Atlantic-Gulf Coastal Plain.

Jim Sullivan and I spent a significant percentage of our high school weekends driving from Gainesville to the Atlantic coast to spend a day at our favorite beach, via a route that I now know took us just south of the trailing southern end of Trail Ridge. It tickles my fancy to realize that as I lathered myself with sunscreen to protect my frisbee-hurling limbs, I was coating myself with titanium dioxide that may once have been precipitated on a prehistoric precursor to my beloved Crescent Beach, 250,000 years earlier. And that perhaps, in some future era thousands of years hence, the sand dunes upon which I scrambled would be another ridge waiting to be mined, should Florida, and Floridians, survive that long.

Dupont started mining near Starke in the late 1940s. Via the wonders of Google Maps, you can see a remarkably clear picture of the mining operations right here. There, to the right, is the man-made pond where a gigantic dredge called “The Sandpiper” pumps more than 30 thousand gallons of water and sand every minute into a floating wet mill that separates the ilmenite and leucoxene from millions of tons of ancient beach sand. To the left is the naked gash of earth where the sand once lay, underneath a coating of pine forest.

Eventually, the Starke mine will be depleted. But there is much more ore to be mined along Trail Ridge, including what is believed to be an especially rich area of deposits adjoining Georgia’s fabled Okefenokee Swamp. In the late 1990s, Dupont had plans to start up operations there that would commence when the Starke mine ran dry. Local environmentalists were horrified at the prospect. Dupont, one of the greatest polluters the world has ever known, now talks a good game about how it takes great care to “restore” natural landscapes after it has completed ripping all the useful minerals out of the ground, but you can’t take apart a ridge that drains into one of the world’s most remarkable wetlands (the home of Pogo and Albert the Alligator!) and put it back together again and expect that there will be no damage. Just the hundreds of truck trips a week necessary to transport ore back to the Starke processing facility would likely ruin the ambience.

I know, I know, this same story of environmental despoliation and industrial progress is told everywhere with great monotony. But the sound of the waves caressing Crescent Beach have How the World Works hopelessly mired in quicksand nostalgia, and the threat to the Okefenokee strikes too close to home. In 1979, Jim Sullivan and I and two other high school friends built a raft, hauled it up to Fargo, Georgia, where the Suwanee River emerges from the Okefenokee Swamp and did our damndest to imitate Huck Finn for a week, in celebration of our final liberation from high school. A titanium mine within hearing distance feels like a crime against nature and my own memory, even if I haven’t been back to that spot in almost three decades. My apologies to Starke, which enjoys its own natural beauty, but it is no Okefenokee.

In this case, the public outcry was so great that Dupont was forced to back off, to renounce its mineral rights, and to donate thousands of acres to the Okefenokee Natural Wildlife Refuge. A rare happy ending. But one can only wonder — where did the company’s attention then turn?

And even as I write those words, I look around my home office and wonder how many of the manufactured items, the painted and the plastic gewgaws, contain titanium oxide, possibly from a prehistoric beach that now resides in Starke, and possibly refined in a factory in Kuan Yin, Taiwan. I am complicit.

Dupont first arrived in Taiwan in 1968. Its titanium dioxide plant, located in the Kuanyin Industrial Park about 30 miles west of Taipei, was approved by the Taiwanese government in 1985, but did not go into full production until 1994. The delay, says Dupont, “stemmed from local concerns about possible environmental and health risks.”

As an example of successful industrial policy, you will be hard-pressed to do better than Taiwan, which managed both to lure foreign investment from companies like Dupont, and use the knowledge gained thereby to bootstrap its own extraordinarily successful independent industrial development. Industrial “parks” that offered low taxes and other incentives to foreign multinationals were a critical part of Taiwan’s strategy. Dupont was just one of many companies looking to cut costs by integrating Taiwan into global production chains.

There is no rhyme or reason to this story. Trade and industrial development have resulted in a thriving economy in Taiwan where workers enjoy high standards of living and manufacture electronic gadgets that are hot commodities everywhere. There are many things to appreciate about that narrative. But the same processes have required that landscapes be destroyed, lakes poisoned, and wetlands banished forever. Now, temperatures are rising and seas that once receded may come back.

A wave leaches ilmenite into a sand dune 250,000 years ago. Humans leach it out, send it to Taiwan, transform it into a white pigment that mixed with plastic or metal becomes the casing for a computer monitor or an iPod that ends up in my home office. Environmentalists in southern Georgia and Taoyuan, Taiwan protest the process at both ends, striving for a sustainability that modern humans have yet to demonstrate is truly possible. Prices rise, mines run dry, the alligator and the black bear and the gopher tortoise hang on by a thread in northern Florida and southern Georgia. Pogo hides from Dupont — whispering “we have met the enemy, and he is titanium dioxide.”

Temperatures rise, the sun comes out, and suddenly all I want to do is be 17 again and driving to the beach where the waves have been singing the same song since long before the Pleistocene, and I can hurl my plastic made-in-China frisbee until the sun goes down without ever once thinking about anything more disturbing than whether or not I have enough sunscreen.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>