He marched into my office and declared: “I am too old to consult at altitudes of 14,000 ft.”
I replied: “Many wonder if you do not have a severe case of BDSM sublimated in peer review at high altitudes.”
Today on the phone I spoke to someone later described to me as very influential in mining. We agreed on nothing. His job precludes him from rocking the boat. His job demands assuaging potential clients. He is nevertheless honorable in that he seeks to make mining good to the benefit of society.
We sought to establish what should be done to prevent a future Mt Polley. Here are some ideas we did not agree on:
Professional Certification: Screw P.Eng. Make it necessary to be a T.Eng. (Professional Tailings Engineer). In short do what is done in California: P.E. is OK. But if you want to practice as a geotechnical engineer get registered as a professional geotechnical engineer–my daughter is thus registered and it makes a difference, I attest. If you want to be a structural engineer, register as a professional structural engineer. I have good friends who are registered as such and they are good. And you have to pass examinations to become a Californian professional geotechnical engineer or a professional structural engineer. Afterall, you do not need to be a geotechnical engineer to be a tailings engineer—in fact it may be an impediment to try to be a tailings engineer based on ability as a geotechnical engineer. As Sean Wells reminded us a long time ago, a tailings engineer needs to deal with fluids as well as solids. A good geologist, environmental engineer, hydrogeologist and so on may become a better tailings engineer than a geotechnical engineer.
On-Site T.Eng. I visited fourteen tailings facilities last year. There was a perfect correlation between the condition and safety of the tailings facility and the competence of the on-site tailings engineer. Where no engineer, of any type, was on site, the tailings facility was a disaster waiting to happen. Where there was an engineer on site or at least in the company, the tailings facility was well designed, well operated, and safe—at least in my opinion.
Peer Review. I have never come across a safe tailings facility that did not have an independent peer review team. Most tailings facilities I know where there is no peer review team are in danger of imminent failure, in spite of certification by the Canadian Mining Association–witness Mt Polley as a prime example. The only problem with demanding a peer review team is that the folk who are peer reviewers are old and they snooze through meetings. They jealously guard their assignments and exclude others. They should be seeking instead to groom the fifty-year olds to be peer reviewers. For the current crop of old peer reviewers will die and leave a vast vacuum behind. Common decency and moral professionalism, in my opinion, dictates that they should be grooming the next generation of tailings facility peer reviewers, those who are now fifty or so. And the old snoozers should fast move to lower altitudes.
Public Reports. After the failure of the South African slimes dams at Bafokeng and Merriespruit, the government made it mandatory that every four months an independent consultant prepare and submit to the government a report that was made public on the condition of the slimes dam. Four years or so ago I went to the SRK office in Johannesburg. There was a large space with thirty or so young engineers of every persuasion working on preparation of such reports. The young Whites, the young Blacks, the young Indians, the young Coloureds (to use South African terminology in its best attitude), the male and female and gay, were all doing what engineers should do: tame the forces of nature to the benefit of mankind.
Public Disclosure. All designs, all inspection reports, all qualms and concerns from everybody should be submitted to the public authorities/regulators and soon thereafter made public. None should be kept secret as is the common practice in BC, but not in Alberta or many USA jurisdictions. For the only check is public transparency and public scrutiny. The good old British Empire secrecy based on the believe that there is an upper class and a lower class and that the upper class knows what is best for the lower class, should be dead. It is not, sadly, dead in BC or for that matter Canada. My telephone talk today confirmed that my co-talker is committed to the British Empire conviction of the upper classes’ right to decide for the lower class.
Active Lawyers. I believe in lawyers. Without them we would not be free or safe. The more lawyers suing those committed to secrecy, upper-class devotion, incompetence, veniality, stupidity, unprofessional conduct, and so on —the better. The fear of being sued is the best force to good conduct I know of. Thus the success of the U.S, system of adversarial conflict as compared to the Canadian, cigar-smoke-filled, room-of-consensus in cleaning up contaminated sites. Giant Mine and Faro would have been dealt with long ago in an adversarial setting. Instead they continue for decades and billions to fester in closed covens of self-interest.
Lean, Learned Regulators. I was recently in a meeting with regulators. There were four-times as many of them as there were of us. Most had nothing to say or contribute. They were professional committee queens. They talked as we smoked outside of the next meeting; they bragged of the many meeting they had to attend. Not one had a single insight into what the meeting was about. We need no more, ten million dollar additional regulators. We need a few lean, learned regulators. For laws and regulations are essential: they set in stone what we have to do, how we have to act, and what is necessary & appropriate for public safety. Laws without active, lean, learned regulators are smoke & mirrors.
So be it. Tomorrow or the next day or the next we will see the report on Mt Polley. I have here stated what I think needs to be done to prevent future Mt Polleys. It will be interesting to see if MVV agree. I suspect the report’s conclusion will be that the failure was unpredictable, unavoidable, and just one of the inevitable statistics of tailings facility failure. One in four every year or one in a million? Dirk Van Zyl has said it was one in a million. I wonder if he will stand by this in the report? Or will he go with Steve Vick who says that in the goodness of time all tailings facilities will fail and therefore we should strive only to mitigate the impacts of inevitable failure. By Monday we know, we hope.