Archive for the ‘Mining history’ Category


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.

u 1

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

u 2

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.

u 3

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

u 4

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.

 u 5

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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mt polley

Along with the picture above, I received by email today the following text.  Take a look at the YouTube timelapse.  Interesting.

What do you think is the likelihood of inaccurate ground investigation leading to design and foundation problems? I am sending this picture of the topography below the TSF. There were artesian conditions reported in several piezometers under the main embankment, which is why the buttressed it and stopped the displacement which had been occurring. It looks as though the swampy, lacustrine sediments could have extended further north and northeast from that shown on the map, and resulted in poor conditions in the area where the dam failed – what do you think? I also uploaded a timelapse video on YouTube compiling Landsat photos over the lifespan of the facility: http://youtu.be/Ac0UlGZSu7w It clearly depicts the water surplus, and the repeated events during 2011-2013 when the TSF was completing full and water appears to be lapping at the embankment edge. During 2014 it occurred in May, June, and July before the 4 August failure. Couldn’t this be monitored and report to MOE and local communities? What do you think about requiring online publishing and full disclosure of all TSF reports?

I have hear that they are drilling in the area of the failure in an attempt to better define foundation conditions.  I have previously noted that there appears to be a change of topography at the corner, and maybe this is related to differential settlement leading to failure.  I suspect we will hear that it is a combination of foundation conditions, the semi-upstream construction, and too much water.  No matter they now have three years to file charges—although the thought & threat of criminal charges which Bennett makes so much noise about perturbs me.  This may have been bad engineering or bad inspection; but somehow I cannot get around the idea that there is criminal activity involved.  What does Bennett know that we don’t?

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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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Many, many years ago I was in Sitka for a conference on Marine Tailings Disposal.  The proceedings were published in a book edited by D.V. Ellis.  You can get a copy from amazon.com for $4.00.  My copy is in the attic of the house in Huntington Beach.  Bet none of the kids will ever read the paper therein that I wrote with John Welsh. Recently one of the many who communicate with me via private email sent me a remarkable document.  It is the DSTP Initiative: 2014 Knowledge Workshop Report dated May 2014.   Keep in mind DSTP stands for Deep Sea Tailings Placement. (more…)

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In February next year I shall go to the Society of Mining Engineers (SME) conference in Denver.  One evening I shall dine with Andy Robertson and his party.  We will celebrate his induction into the Mining Hall of Fame. This is a signal honor for him and due recognition of his many contributions to the mining industry.  He well deserves it.  Not that he needs more recognition–most people I speak to know and respect him.  He is well-known for his superior intellect, his accomplishments, and his human gentleness.  For he is first and foremost a gentleman in all meanings of the word. (more…)

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This year I have visited at least sixteen tailings facilities from the far north of Canada to the far south of Chile.  Mainly I was there to see about the state, safety, and ongoing operation of the facilities.  But along the way I had an incredible opportunity to observe and photograph mine water management facilities and systems. In next week’s EduMine webcast on Mine Water Management, I will have a chance to distill these many observations into a coherent whole.  So come join us in the webcast next Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.  But three hours a day each morning and I will update you on the many systems, practices, components, and ideas I have gleaned from these trips and observations.  Many new case histories courtesy of the mines I visited. (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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