Here is a comment on a previous posting on this blog about the failure of tailings impoundments:
How about openly publicizing the names of the consulting firms and engineers that were responsible for designing and building the dams that failed so that future operators can avoid those particular designers? That way consultants would take more care in overseeing the facilities and we get better product in the end. Funny how we hear about the failures and the named mining company but we don’t actually get the names of those really responsible. Was the Bellavista heap leach failure the fault of the company or the designer? Name the designer responsible for siting and designing the leach pad – I still don’t know who it was. Same for Omai – who was the designer and supervisor of construction? Same for Los Frailes? I think consultants need to take some ownership of the tailings failures themselves and not hide behind the skirt of the mining company.
I concur with this call. I am, however, hypocritical. In those instances in which I know the names of those who designed the failed facility, I cannot tell. In the most egregious case, this is because the failure is in litigation: everybodies’ lawyers & insurance companies are suing everybody else. I am told it may take a decade to even sort out the issue of jurisdiction—that is where the court case would be held if they ever get to that point.
Meanwhile the presumption of innocence prevails. All are innocent until proven otherwise. Clearly those who signed the drawings and reports are claiming the failure is not of their doing. And in the most egregious case, there are so many parties involved it is indeed difficult to decide if one or all are to blame, net alone work out whose insurance company should pay what share.
Which goes to prove my basic thesis: failure is seldom if ever the result of one and only one mistake. Most often a failure is the result of a string of small errors or omissions, each of which, in and of itself, is trivial and inconsequential. But line up ten errors and/or omissions, mix in statistics, and there is a big failure.
Is the fellow who wrote “the site is currently stable,” to blame, when he should have written, “the site is currently stable, but who knows what will happen if you load it?”
Is the fellow who designed the first mine geowaste facility to blame, when it was the second geowaste facility that probably got things going? And the mine that is claiming damage is the entity that decided to put the second geowaste facility in place, without design.
Is it maybe just an act of God that there was so much rain—so much more than anybody had ever experienced?
My point is that probably all have a small measure of blame for failing to think deep, keep everybody continually involved, not considering cumulative consequences, and not protesting at the critical juncture. But then think of the pressure on the engineers when the O-ring on the shuttle failed, even though the engineers had protested until takeoff. And you will understand the pressure that concerted management can exert.
I myself just a while ago declared a berm unsafe, only to have the client’s geotechnical engineer over-rule me. Neither of us will ever know who is correct if the thing stands up indefinitely. Or maybe he will be proven correct and I will be proven overly conservative.
Ultimately it is the mine that is to blame. It is their property, their waste, they are in charge, and drive the agenda. They should not rely on one opinion only when it comes to critical facilities. We all know too much of the benefits of peer review. In none of the cases of egregious failure of a tailings impoundment that I know of, were there peer reviewers.
It won’t happen any time soon, but I submit that any consultant who undertakes to design or consult on a mine geowaste facility, should insist on independent peer review of their work, regardless of how confident they are of their ability. And every mine should insist on the same. Until that happens, I suspect we will continue to see impoundments fail, lawyers flourish, insurance companies pay, and there will be no publication of the names of those involved.