This story isn’t
necessarily Kalgoorlie-centric, in as much as it might have happened to me somewhere else at some other, future point in time. But, as it turns out, it did happen in Kalgoorlie and so gives me an opportunity to talk about other facets of the job there, as well as some freaky brain stuff.
The area in which we were working while constructing the netting structure is just outside of the roaster itself. The roaster facility is maybe two or three-hundred square metres of factory-type industrial workspace containing the sheds of the tradesmen and permanent staff, as well as the control tower and some rudimentary office space for meetings and management types. The whole place is tinted a rusty, red/brown colour, speckled with the occasional white splash from the lime mill. The most prominent feature of the facility is the roaster itself, standing at an impressive 180 metres tall and constantly breathing a stream of thick, white cloud into the air. This effluent is comprised of water vapour and sulphur dioxide, and really does look like your typical nature-made cloud once it starts floating away; a fact that will come into play later on in this tale.
The worst days on the tailings dam were those where the wind would shift from a south-easterly to a south-westerly and then drop. This wind pattern meant that the cloud of gas streaming from the roaster would fall directly on all of us working in the dam. Because it was heavier than air, the dam would catch it and store it, creating quite a dense fog which, on some days, meant you couldn’t see from one end of the dam to the other. The really shitty thing about that can be summed up in the following quote from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency:
Current scientific evidence links short-term exposures to SO2, ranging from 5 minutes to 24 hours, with an array of adverse respiratory effects including bronchoconstriction and increased asthma symptoms. These effects are particularly important for asthmatics at elevated ventilation rates (e.g., while exercising or playing.)
Emphasis mine. This stuff tasted like shit and caused what I can only be bothered to assume was a reaction with mucus resulting in some kind of sulphuric acid that stung and burned with every breath. Thankfully after the second swing I was prepared with a face buff (pretty much a cylinder of stretchy material) borrowed from Pat that took out most of the sting. But damned if that chemical taste still lingers with me when I think about it.
Anyway, so the roaster operated pretty much constantly the entire time we were working on the dam. I think I was once quoted a loss of a million dollars a day if it didn’t. On the day in which this story occurs, it was streaming almost directly above me as I exited from the crib room. The weather was perfect, with a rich blue sky that stretched, uninterrupted, to the horizon. By chance, I happened to look up just in time to see the moon rapidly accelerating through the sky, seemingly on a mission to leave our orbit and end life as we know it on Earth.
And then I blinked, and the moon was back to being stationary while the clouds of gas marching towards the horizon were now moving, and the visual cortex in my brain had reasserted its authority over an illusion known as ‘induced movement’. Briefly, induced movement occurs when you don’t have enough reference points to decide which object is moving and which is stationary in your field of vision. You may have experienced it when sitting on a train at a station when another train is opposite you. When the other train moves, your vision overrides any input from your body moving and for a second you might think that you are moving, when in actual fact it is the relative movement of the train pulling out that tricks you.
The interesting thing about my experience was not the phenomenon itself (although illusions that trick the body’s senses are really interesting and I may have been sucked into a two-hour wikiloop while I researched this) but rather the way I reacted to it. For one, maybe two, seconds I was utterly convinced that this shit was going down. The moon was flying away and holycrapwhatthefuck. Or, rather, not. Because my immediate reaction didn’t fall into the fight or flight categories. Instead, the first thing I did was to ask myself how this could have happened, and why it was happening. In other words, I began trying to reason out this life-threatening observation despite being absolutely certain that it was true.
It’s strange to think that perhaps, after all these years of scientific study, my brain has been rewired to ask questions first and shoot later.