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The builders of the great cathedrals had history, wisdom, and an innate understanding of gravity to guide them.  They erected edifices  of such magnificence that today we are still inspired and directed to a reverence for God.  How can such simple things as stone-on-stone, glass of crystal clarity, and paintings & statues still inspire us?  Is it simply the genius of the builders?  Or the edifices they created? Or is it innate admiration of great works that defy the conventions of nature?

Today, as engineers, were are blessed, or is it burdened, by a plethora of equations and codes that we are expected to solve and run before we can construct even the simplest structure.  But are the resultant works any better than the cathedrals built in the absence of slide-rule and computer codes?  And in the absence of professional registration that involves passing an examination in ethics?

For what is ethics?  Wikipedia has the final say, thus:

Ethics, sometimes known as moral philosophy, is a branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct, often addressing disputes of moral diversity.[1] The term comes from the Greekword ἠθικός ethikos from ἦθος ethos, which means “custom, habit”. The superfield within philosophy known as axiology includes both ethics and aesthetics and is unified by each sub-branch’s concern with value.[2] Philosophical ethics investigates what is the best way for humans to live, and what kinds of actions are right or wrong in particular circumstances. Ethics may be divided into three major areas of study:[1]

  • Meta-ethics, about the theoretical meaning and reference of moral propositions and how their truth values (if any) may be determine.
  • Normative ethics, about the practical means of determining a moral course of action
  • Applied ethics draws upon ethical theory in order to ask what a person is obligated to do in some very specific situation, or within some particular domain of action (such as business)

As engineers, we most often encounter the concept of ethics as applied ethics–what is one obligated to do in a specific situation?

I first faced these questions as an engineer on the UMTRA Project.  Here are some recent Google Earth pictures of the structures we built.

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This is a view of the three radioactive waste disposal cells on a mesa above the Uravan site, Colorado.

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A view of the Cheney site in Colorado.  We moved the tailings some 45 miles from the center of Grand Junction to this, the best site we could find.  Note that it is still open, for they are still removing radioactive tailings from vicinity properties in Grand Junction.

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This is Tuba City, Arizona.  Still my favourite.  Note the large diversion structures upgradient of the pile.

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The Shiprock, New Mexico site.  High on a mesa above the river and town.  Now there is much vegetation growing on the cover and some call this the Shiprock National Forest.

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The Estes Park, Colorado cell.  We moved the tailings from the river besides Durango.  This is the only cell that includes a GCL in the top deck cover.

On the UMTRA Project, we engineers and geologists had absolute veto over the selection of a new site to which to relocate the tailings.  On fourteen of the twenty-four sites, we relocated the tailings to a new site.  The procedures we employed are well documented in the Technical Approach Document, that I had a hand in writing.  You can get a copy from the Grand Junction UMTRA office, or email me, and I will send you a copy.

My belief is that any project that does not do what we did in selecting a new site for mine waste relocation, is acting in defiance of best practice and will inevitably have to deal with failure of their choice.

We were blessed on the UMTRA Project with prudent clients, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).  We were blessed by Jacobs Engineering project managers of intelligence and judgement sufficient to support the dictates of engineers and geologist in saying what is a good and what is a bad site to take the tailings to.

The point is, I believe, that we all were able to act, advise, and decide ethically.  We used history, judgement, and instinct to choose.  For we did not have MAAs,  FMEAa, or any of those other glitzy risk assessment methodologies to guide us and document justification of our choice and decision.  We probably did it the old-fashioned way:  examine a wide radius for alternative sites; walk the sites to understand their geomorphology; define the site’s deep geological history; characterize the soils & groundwater of the site; and hence select on the basis of reason and rationality.

On the simplest basis, we avoided sites in flood plains, sites with artesian groundwater, with surrounding populations, and with weak foundation soils.  We would never have chosen a site underlain by karst or open bedrock fractures.  We could not always avoid sites with some upgradient area.  When we selected such site, we constructed diversion facilities lined with durable rock able to withstand erosion by the probable maximum flood.

Today, some thirty years later, our cells endure.  Some have concluded they will last forever as we intended.  Some say the covers of rock will become a mixture of soil and rock and vegetation—but still erosion resistant and infiltration-controlling.  I now know that we got some things wrong.  But I know the overall result was good: stable facilities that will endure for more than a thousand years.

It can be done: namely close a mine waste disposal facility in a way that the resultant works will be stable for a thousand years and well beyond.  It takes money; it takes humbleness in the face of the forces of nature; it requires copying precedent; and it involves the skill of the old cathedral builders—for there are no absolute equations of computer codes that provide the final solution.  In the end it is patience, humbleness, and consultation with co-experts.

Yet these lessons are still not learnt.  There are still projects that deprecate what we did; that ignore what we did; and that are speeding to failure.

Are we ethically obliged to support such projects?  My response is NO.  Let ‘em fail, if that is their arrogance, ineptitude, and lack of perspective, history, and ethics.

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Today I received the followings announcement by email.  I cannot find the original on the website of the BC Ministry of Energy and Mines (MEM).  Maybe they have not gotten down to posting it yet.  The announcement, in short, is that MEM has awarded Klohn Crippen Berger (KCB) a $1.5 million to help MEM evaluate the cause of the Mt Polley failure–more specifically to provide advice in conducting the “forensic investigation” into the breach.

I can think of no firm in BC better qualified to provide such services.  They have many great tailings engineers on staff.  As noted in the announcement: “KCB is a large company with highly qualified engineering and technical staff with the resources to assist in this very complicated investigation. KCB has a certified soils lab capable of conducting all necessary tests for this investigation.”

Here is the full text of the notice.

Notice is hereby given by the Ministry of Energy and Mines (the Ministry) of its intent to contract with Klohn Crippen Berger Ltd. (KCB), to provide the following services related to the breach of the tailings storage facility (TSF) at Mount Polley mine.

  •  Provide expert advice to the Chief Inspector and other Investigators conducting the forensic investigation into the TSF breach.
  • Prepare suitable questions and conduct interviews of mine personnel and engineers having knowledge of the TSF.
  • Review geotechnical reports relating to the design, construction, operation, maintenance, and surveillance of the TSF. This includes several hundred reports and documents including, but not limited to: design reports, construction summary reports, dam safety inspections, and site investigation reports.
  • Plan and coordinate a field program of geophysical sections, drilling, Cone Penetration Testing (CPT), and laboratory testing.
  • Implement and supervise the aforementioned field program.
  • Conduct laboratory testing.
  • Prepare a site investigation report to summarize the field program.
  • Interpret site investigation data collected from geophysical sections, drilling, CPT testing, and laboratory testing.
  • Conduct forensic analysis to assist in the determination of the root cause of the breach, and any contributing factors.
  • Conduct seepage, stability, and numerical modelling.
  • Prepare a geotechnical report that summarizes the interpretation of geotechnical data.

The contract is not expected to exceed $1,500,000 and is expected to cover a period of 1 year, starting November 10, 2014.

The Ministry did not call for vendor proposals for the following reasons:

  •  The need to hire a consultant not previously associated with the Mount Polley mine to avoid a conflict of interest or a potential conflict of interest.
  • Urgency to start the investigation before disturbance of the site due to mitigation works or weather. KCB was on-site within two weeks of the breach and has been involved in the investigation ever since. The on-site field program is approximately 50% complete.
  • If a contravention of the Mines Act is found, tight timelines for the investigation are legislated under Section 37 of the Mines Act.
  • The need for continuity in the investigation. In May 2013, KCB along with four other consultants, had responded to a “Request for Qualifications” to qualify for a pre-qualification list. At the time of the breach, KCB was selected from that list as the most qualified to assist with the Mount Polley investigation and did not have a conflict of interest.
  • Posting an open competition would delay the investigation and compromise the integrity of the ongoing investigation.
  • KCB is a large company with highly qualified engineering and technical staff with the resources to assist in this very complicated investigation. KCB has a certified soils lab capable of conducting all necessary tests for this investigation.
  • KCB engineers have previous experience with forensic engineering investigations of this type and scale.
  • KCB has engineers qualified to complete this work that are registered with the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of BC (APEGBC). Engineering work in British Columbia must be completed by professional engineers that are members of APEGBC.

Vendors wishing to object to this decision should contact George Warnock at George.Warnock@gov.bc.ca before November 7, 2014 at 2:00 pm Pacific Time, presenting specific reasons for their objection. If justified, a vendor’s meeting, with Ministry representatives present to discuss the decision, will be called to receive vendor representations regarding this contract.

Vendor ability to offer products and services resulting in the same or better solutions in the same timeframe will be the key criterion with regard to the consideration of vendor objections. Vendors must be qualified as professional engineers in British Columbia and have no conflicts of interest at the mine. In addition, vendors would need to demonstrate previous forensic engineering experience involving a dam failure investigation of a similar scale.

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Note that KCB has been on site since two weeks after the incident; the investigation is expected to take upto a year to complete, although field work is already fifty percent complete; and KCB must “Prepare a geotechnical report that summarizes the interpretation of geotechnical data.”

I suspect this notice has been issued now probably because somebody has complained about so large a contract being awarded in the absence of competitive bids.  It is certainly unusual to make such an announcement six weeks after work started.   If you want to protest now, there is a procedure, but I venture it is too late to change things—not easy to “demonstrate previous forensic engineering experience involving a dam failure investigation of a similar scale.”  Why even KCB does not have that experience!

Dirk Van Zyl during his speech at the recent Tailings and Mine Waste conference told us that Thurber Engineers is working for the Morgenstern, Vick, and Van Zyl (MVV) panel drilling, sampling, and testing site soils.  Presumably they will in essence write a geotechnical report that summarizes the interpretation of the data.  Although such a report may well come out under the signatures of Morgenstern, Vick, and Van Zyl–assuming they can agree.

Dirk joked about multiple drills, drilling side by side, and not sharing data with each other.  A minor inconvenience and a non-thrifty approach at best.  Still at least MVV do not have to support forensic working possibly leading, in three years, to criminal convictions.  MEM appears to have undertaken to do that themselves.  Or will they hand the KCB report to the local police in Likely?  Or to the Federal Mounties, riding on white horses to our rescue?

But now we have, in a sense, a fourth group working to establish the cause of failure.  It is hard to believe they will concur—and then who judges?  Probably a Judge?   So there must be a fifth group working for Imperial Metals to prepare their defence.  I read somewhere that SNC Lavalin is working for Imperial Metals.  I wonder if I will live long enough to see this Bleak House affair through the courts to final settlement.

Recall that Bleak House tells of a will that lands up in court.  Some decades later litigation ends as legal fees have consumed the estate being fought over.  What hope for Imperial Metals and the BC taxpayer?  On which point, the MEM announcement makes no note of who will pay the $1.5 million to KCB or the $1.5 million to Thurber, or the many dollars to the MVV panel.  The bills to MEM must be adding up.  I wonder if they will every get this money back from Imperial Metals, or if the BC taxpayer is already coughing up the dough?  We are certainly paying now, pending possible success in recouping the cash from Imperial Metals.

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On a final note, you can, if you have the right experience, join the KCB team.  Seven days ago they posted an ad looking for a tailings engineer who will, inter alia, do the following:

  • fill a senior technical role focused on tailings management design with conventional or alternative technologies, dam design, mining geo-structures and operations support for projects worldwide, most of which are in extremely challenging environments in remote and logistically challenging locations
  • work with our leadership team of world recognized tailings engineers each with more than 30 years of experience
  • manage and execute projects, including quality control, time and budget management
  • deliver projects successfully and be accountable for project planning and direction
  • prepare and review technical reports, drawings, specifications, bill of quantities, and cost estimates
  • sustain client relationships and develop new business
  • join a dynamic company of motivated and hardworking professionals committed to delivering high quality engineering and environmental services

No mention of forensic ability though.  Maybe that comes with the turf. So stand by: the circus is only going to get bigger; the rings more; and the players will all be lawyers or supporters thereof.  And as a taxpayer, you can take a sideline seat to enjoy justice being done, probably at your expense.

PS.  I blogged some time ago that Jim Kuipers was to take the job of supporting the First Nations in all this.  He emailed me recently to say that he declined the post.  Now word is that yet another consultant is sought to assist the First Nations make sense of this.  Not an easy job, but it might appeal to you.  Think of yourself as the sixth group.

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PPS.  Soon after posting the above, the following comment appeared.  Here is the comment and my answer: (As so often Hardrockminer is the intelligent commenter who brings me back to reality.

hardrockminer

I’m stuck wondering how the provincial government would ever find a way to lay criminal charges. Violations of Mines Act would be regulatory offences, not criminal. There is federal law (C45) that would allow criminal prosecution, but the ministry would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, which is a much tougher standard than regulatory.

I’m also wondering why the government is hiring an engineering consultant to determine what happened when they have already commissioned the three wise men to do exactly the same thing?

  • Goodness only knows, as my grandmother used to say. I see a great nervousness in all this. Maybe they see duplication as the solution to the imponderable. Maybe KCB have persuaded them to take an independent look–good marketing at work. Maybe the lawyers have primacy==the greater the number of conflicting opinions, the greater the legal battle.

    The Bafokeng tailings failure was decided by a Judge. He concluded it was all an act of God, therefore nobody was liable. Does BC have any religious Judges to render a similar opinion?

    As you note, this is a strange situation.

    PPPS.  As I showered I wondered if the only rational answers to this conundrum lies in irrationality.  Consider.  KCB appears to have been set to work before the MVV panel was convened.  Is it possible that MEM in panic decided to investigate themselves,  aided perhaps by good advice from prominent BC consultants.  Thus MEM set KCB to work.

    Then wiser heads prevailed, and the MVV panel was convened.  By then KCB was at work and nobody was willing or able to stop the juggernaut.  But the MVV panel trust only Thurbers—Morgenstern much admires John Sobkowich of Thurbers, thus they were brought in to do the MVV panels dictates.  Thus we have overlapping mandates, work activities, potentially conflicting reports, and an ungodly mess on our hands.  And either the taxpayer of the shareholders of Imperial Metals will pay.  So what they are both deep pockets!

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Procopius wrote the most startling revelation of official incompetence and veniality. He wrote venerable histories about Belisariaus.   But he also wrote about the scandals of Justinian’s court.  Here is what one source says: (more…)

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I was always healthy until I visited the doctor for a checkup.  Then they found all sorts of things wrong with me:  internal components not working; high levels of this and that and consequential concerns; indications of too much drink and smoking; blood pressure where it should not be;  weight too high; and so on.  Although I did loose some fifteen lbs on my recent trip to Peru and Chile. Maybe not enough alcohol,  lots of walking, and all that terrible Peruvian food.  How can you like raw fish in vinegar; black potatoes in squid ink; or slimy muscles in red pepper?  I cannot and probably ate too little. (more…)

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Just home from a four-week journey that took me to  Peru, Chile, Keystone CO, Banff, and Ekati NWT.  It is good to be back in the house where you can throw off the formalities of travel, eat simple food, and get drunk in private. They say that Peruvian food is the best in the world.  Indeed it is if you are in a fancy, expensive place in Lima.  But go to a mine and eat what the miners eat, and it is terrible beyond belief.  Rice & beans and other unrecognizable substances of gooey texture.  I lost weight.  Maybe it was the altitude = 14,500 ft.  You walk slow and breathe deep in those conditions. (more…)

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Woke up late this morning after twelve hours sleep—seems the older I get the more I want to sleep.  Maybe it is old age or maybe riding my bicycle to work tires out the old body.  Or maybe there is something breaking down inside that the doctors cannot discern. (more…)

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Philippe Jaroussky

Artaserse is an opera with five countertenors.  This is how opera was in the beginning.  Women were not allowed on the stage and castrati were in abundance.   Thus in the modern times, five countertenors are needed to produce the opera. An amazing production is the one I watched this weekend.  It is on a DVD from Erato and stars Philippe Jaroussky and Max Emanuel Cencic, two of the best modern countertenors. At first I was amazed and not sure what to think.  But then you suspend belief and segue-way into the music and theater.  For this is drama supreme and masterful emotion. Here is the story of the opera: (more…)

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