There is great danger in the power of one individual to exercise his will. We can all point to disastrous mine failures where one individual exerted so much negative power that things were done wrong, an accident occurred, and people died.
Yet the same can happen in medicine and religion. To deal with religion first. A slew of people have sent me the link to this article from which I quote:
A senior Iranian cleric says women who wear immodest clothing and behave promiscuously are to blame for earthquakes. Iran is one of the world’s most earthquake-prone countries, and the cleric’s unusual explanation for why the earth shakes follows a prediction by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that a quake is certain to hit Tehran and that many of its 12 million inhabitants should relocate. “Many women who do not dress modestly … lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which (consequently) increases earthquakes,” Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi was quoted as saying by Iranian media. Sedighi is Tehran’s acting Friday prayer leader.
To deal with the problem of overbearing individuals in medicine, in the construction of high-rise buildings, and in the piloting of planes, I refer you to this book: The Checklist Manifesto – How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande. I read the book on the flight from Toronto back to Vancouver this morning. I wish every mining and civil engineer would read this book and implement its lessons. I hope my doctor reads the book too. I urge you to read it—it is intelligent, well-written, easy to read, and full of practical advice.
All of this leads me to my main point. I have been cogitating these past days on why tailings impoundments fail. I am prompted to that issue by delving deep into Geoff Blight’s new book in which he writes at length about the failure of two South African slimes dams. I personally know of three more South African slimes dam failures that are not fully written up. On the basis of these cogitations, I note these suggestions for avoiding the failure of slimes dams:
Use the Wisdom of the Group: There are many ways to capture the wisdom of the group—as good a way as we know of to identify potential Black Swans in mining. Some people call the process risk assessment, but there are many ways of facilitating wise thinking, including: Risk Assessment; Failure Modes and Effect Analysis; Value Engineering; and Multi Accounts Analysis. The senior author personally prefers the FMEA approach although he has participated in many other sessions adopting variants, and they mostly worked.
Compile an Observational Method Plan. The Observational Method is well-known in geotechnical engineering, so we say no more about the method here other than that it forces you to establish logical monitoring and observation routines, to identify what may go wrong, and to establish before you start what you are going to do if things start to go wrong. The Observational Method, correctly applied, is no more than the construction of look-out forts, their consistent manning, keeping a look out for an oncoming Black Swan, and the preparation of an arsenal of weapons to slay the swan as it glides to your project and discredit.
Implement an Incident Control Program. We know of no tailings facility that is part of an Incident Control Program. It is a nuisance and sometimes offends the powers that be. Yet we submit that a comprehensive Incident Control Program will nip in the bud most things that have ultimately lead to slimes dam failures.
Compile Checklists of what to do when things when designing, constructing and operating a tailings facility, and focus on what to do when things start going wrong. Note the book by Atul Gawande who proposes that proper use of checklists can improve the practice of medicine and the safety of airplanes. There are many checklists for tailings impoundments built into the many documents put out by national organizations. We suspect none of them takes a “kill the Black Swan” perspective. We submit that all are probably too un-conservative. In particular, avoid any that have sustainable in the title, for by definition this means they avoid the truth, or have been written by consultants trying to make it easier for cash-strapped clients. They obviously need to be re-written to be more outlier-event averse, but that is no good reason not to start now.
Ensure Regular Peer Review. Peer reviewers are easy to fool and mislead. Peer reviewers are as susceptible as any group to herd-thinking, and blindly following the lead of one dominant individual who does not fall asleep in peer review meetings. Nevertheless, if carefully chosen they are at least independent, force the designers and operators to prepare presentations and argue their case (probably the greatest benefit of the whole process), and they may just notice something management is too busy to attend to.
No guarantees this set of actions will preclude failure of your mines tailings facility, but I bet it will reduce the probability.