Revistes Catalanes amb Accés Obert (RACO)

Aluminium smelters and industrial hazards in the Maurienne Valley. Experts, reformers and local resistance (1892-1939)

Olivier Chatterji


This article offers a historical perspective on the interplay between pollutants, environment and health in the Alps of Savoy during the Second Industrial Revolution. At the turn of the 19th century, Savoys Alpine valleys were radically transformed by a large-scale gold rush to exploit its hydroelectric potential for use by a growing electrochemical industry. More particularly, we look at the Maurienne Valley where six aluminium production factories built between 1892 and 1906 were among the earliest implementations of a newly discovered electrochemical process to manufacture large quantities of the metal. We show how, along with modernity narratives, hitherto unknown pollution effects raised unprecedented questions about the toxicity of air emissions. We then discuss how the impacts of industrial pollution on the agricultural economy fuelled a growing mobilisation of farmer unions led by a prominent pharmacist in the region. We show how the latter single-handedly attempted to merge the grievances of disaffected local communities throughout Savoy into a transregional reform movement to campaign for legislative change and tighter control of polluting industries. We also look at the large range of issues it brought up, such as worker and public health along with the long-term impacts of pollutants on the valleys ecology. In parallel, we explore the ambivalent work of administrative experts and their role in enforcing the view that air emissions were innocuous. Lastly, we look at the role of firms after the war in providing social amenities and easing the transition from a predominantly rural to an industrial society.

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