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  • Universitat de València

Seminari: Cicle 'Tòxics (in) visibles'


Date: 20 november 2019 at 16:00 to 17:30. Wednesday.


Place: Sala de Conferències, Palau de Cerveró, Plaça Cisneros, 4. 46003 València


Toxic Highlands. The back and forth of mercury contamination in the Swiss Alps (1917-today)Toxic 

Alexandre Elsig, Interdisciplinary Centre for Mountain Research, University of Lausanne

The canton of Valais in the Swiss Alps is well known for its high mountains and wild landscapes, less for its industrial plants. However, linked to the development of hydropower since the beginning of the 20th century, the upper Rhône Valley was a important place of industrial development, especially through chemical and aluminium factories. One of them, the Lonza plant in Visp, is now under the spotlight: in 2014, one of the biggest mercury contamination of the soils in Europe was discovered along the waste water channel of the factory.


This case is a good example of the back and forth of pollution phenomena and the oscillation between their visibility or invisibility. In the Lonza case, the invisibility cleary dominates for almost a century. The mercury leaks began already in 1917. Despite the complaints of fishermen, mercury continued to be rejected into the waters. In the 1970s, dissent reappeared after the discovery of the contamination of Lake Geneva, more than 100 kilometers downstream. Once again, Lonza was under pressure but the local community remained still and the negociations were done behind the scenes. In 2014, the construction of the highway finally revealed the massive dissemation of the mercury. State representatives told that the long oversight of this problem was the result of a different sensitivity of the past society regarding environmental issues. This is only partially the case. If we want to tell the whole story, we have to take into account other causalities : first, the close link between the scientifical and technical expertise and the company, then the silent compensations of the environmental damages and finally the social and economical dependency of a territory that had transformed itself from a rural to an industrial district in only a few decades.

Alexandre Elsig is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Lausanne (Switzerland). His research interests cover the cultural, social and environmental history of Switzerland during the 20th century. His current project investigates the history of industrial pollution in the Swiss and French Alps. Main publications: with Marianne Enckell and Magali Pittet, Pour une histoire ouvrière de l'environnement, 2019; Les shrapnels du mensonge. La Suisse face à la propagande allemande de la Grande Guerre, 2017; La Ligue d'Action du Bâtiment. L'anarchisme à la conquête des chantiers genevois de l'entre-deux-guerres, 2015.

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Contact: mrile@uv.es

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