Back to the Pebble Mine. Back to the eternal debate. Getting dull, yet ever fascinating. For the fate of this proposed mine will make mining history. If the mine does not go ahead because of opposition, all other anti-mining groups will be vitalized to oppose and stop many more proposed mines. If the mine goes ahead, it will have to do conservative things in such a way that future mines will face an added, expensive burden to replicate.
I have written extensively in this blog on the Pebble Mine. For what I have written, I have been excoriated, exhorted, admonished, advised, threatened, praised, and told to shut up. All my credentials have been questioned. I have been in many a meeting, discussion, and drunken debate in which I have heard much and been told: “You had better not blog about this.”
And I will not blog about these confidential admissions.
Yet there is one topic that I believe I can write about. I can write about the recent EPA report on the potential impact of mining on Bristol Bay—by mines such as Pebble and the many others proposed in that part of Alaska. The reason I feel justified in writing about this aspect of Pebble is that the EPA report quotes a paper by me and a bright young engineer, Lawrence Charlebois. You can read our paper at this link.
We wrote the paper in general ignorance of Pebble. We wrote it to refute a paper by Michael Davis, then of AMEC, who claimed that the cause of tailings failures is a downturn in mining profitability leading to management neglect of the tailings, followed a few years later by a failure of the tailings facility. While I have much empathy for his opinion, I said that there are many more factors involved. I recognize that we all know of mines that cut back on tailings facility oversight in hard economic times and that there is a consequential mal-function or failure of the tailings facility. I recognize we all know mine managers who focus more on their careers than on the safe operation of the tailings facility. And then they move on, leaving the tailings to fail.
I can write of drunken discussions I have had with smart engineers, some of whom have never even heard of the Pebble Mine. Here are some of their observations.
“There are at least five mine tailings facility failures a year that we never hear about. The mines and their lawyers know how to control the flow of information.”
“Don’t believe the story that no tailings dams in Chile were affected by the last earthquake. I am looking at at least eight that were affected. Pity is you will never know what I find.”
“A gross design mistake caused that tailings embankment to fail during construction. They were good engineers who designed it, but they just overlooked a key fact. Don’t tell who they are.”
“We are just overworked. We cannot review all the tailings dams we are supposed to.”
“You make your bed and you lie in it. Things are what they are. Terraforming is challenging stuff.”
The point of all this, in my opinion, is that the statistics of tailings facility failure underestimate probabilities by a factor of two to ten. We simply do not get all the data. We do not record the failures and we do not document the lesson learnt. We are victims of the miner’s lawyers and the need to prop up share value.
In the paper we wrote that is quoted by the EPA we said that the Black Swan of failure comes when ten little, trivial incidents align and an unforeseen failure occurs. We gave advice on how to kill the Black Swan or preclude its coming. One of our recommendations was regular peer review. Easy to do. But as my lunch companion remarked today: “They did not like what we peer reviewers told them, so they cancelled us and we never went back.”
Right now there is an orgy of review of the EPA report. A peer review committee convenes soon to opine. Experts are spending nights reading and writing—and not enjoying their grandchildren. Old men of proven ability are meeting and fretting. Consultants are working overtime. Pebble’s opponents gather in cabals. Supporters gather in indignation. Young geologists seek funding to do PhDs on the long-term geomorphological stability of nine-mile long, eight-hundred-foot high tailings dams. I dine with some who warn me not to blog what they tell me. And I blog—for that is what I do.
All I can advise is to wait, listen, hear, read, and carry a big bag of salt. I sometimes claim to be an expert. But I know that I am but a fallible person. And I know that all the experts now compiling expert opinions about the Pebble Mine, the EPA report, and our paper are but fallible persons. They are skilled, experienced, honest, professional, and hard-working. They will, I hope, be polite about our paper and the conclusions drawn therefrom by the EPA. Maybe they will simply ignore what we wrote, for that is the easy route.
They will say mines can & must proceed; which is true. They will say mining can be done safely; which is true. They will say tailings facilities can be built not to fail; which is true.
But never forget they said this and yet the Black Swan struck the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, the Titanic, and the Teton Dam to name but a few victims of hubris. And the published list of mine impact is long.
We deserve a long and loud debate about the Pebble Mine. At least as long and loud as the debate we had about the UMTRA Project on which we spent a billion dollars to close some old uranium mill tailings piles. I was excoriated and denigrated when I proposed expensive and bold ways to meet the law that we close these mining facilities to be stable for a thousand years. Some of those now opining about Pebble were amongst my most vocal critics of what we did on UMTRA. They must now validate UMTRA and abjure their previous denigration of UMTRA before I will grant them a hearing and credit.
I know that I will gain no friends and no admirers for this piece. I will get emails asking me where I really stand on Pebble and the future of mining. My reply is simple: I believe in good mining, yet I believe there are just some places we should not go mining. Figure!