Today I chatted about mining regulators. They have probably one of the most difficult jobs in mining: writing regulations, setting standards, and monitoring the mining industry. They are subjected to intense political pressure. And to constant demands from the mining industry to work faster and smarter.
One job I would not take now is to be an engineer with the EPA and its Pebble Mine project. You are faced with unknowns beyond the normal, regardless of what the specialists say. You are at the heart of questions that are unanswerable. You cannot possible practice engineering as the art of applying scientific principles—an act that demands judgement and a healthy appetite to take risks. You are sure to be pressured by stakeholders from mining consultants through fishermen and a big dose of politicians taking and principled stand. You are sure to be excoriated however you act.
Most mining regulators I have interacted with over the years are nice folk. They have all been honest, committed, and principled. They have frequently been frustrated by the inability of the miners seeking permits to provide them with simple answers to difficult questions. Many have been wary of submissions based on myths that the miners may subscribe to for mysterious reasons.
On the negative side, many have been overloaded, overworked, lied to, or simply bypassed for political reasons. A certain world weariness sets in when you know the truth, cannot elicit it, tell the truth, and find it ignored.
Put your self in the position of the 1950 regulators faced with permitting the Giant Mine. No doubt, it seemed a good idea at the time: put the tailings underground in old mine workings and new chambers. Now consider the regulator charged with agreeing to freeze it for perpetuity. No wonder they came out with: “It is not good; but we know of no better approach; revisit it in 20 years to see if it can be done better.”
The regulator is the public’s policeman. They must enable mining and commercial activity to continue. They cannot freeze action until certainty is established. They cannot, however, let something go ahead which is detrimental to the public or is contrary to the laws of their jurisdiction. They must keep opposing parties happy by acting swiftly in an environment that discourages swift conclusions based on art, science, and judgment. Maybe it is no wonder they are happy to let the process slide and even go to court. Or better leave it to politicians and bloggers to decide and conclude.
The best regulators i have ever worked with were the folk in Washington at the Nuclear Regulatory Agency. They were demanding, but reasonable. They encouraged the development of the technologies we needed to close mines to be stable for 1,000 years. They were swift in commenting and responding and in keeping things moving. Of course they were well paid, lived in a nice place, and were very well educated. A high standard was demanded of them and they met the challenge.
It is not always thus. But the answer I suggest is for the mining industry to prepare documents of clarity and certainty, and help the regulators do what they have to do—even if we do not envy them having to do it.