Mt. Polley - factors leading to a failure of a geowaste facility

Posted by Stop Ajax Mine on January 12th, 2015 2:19am

The following article is from Jack Caldwell's blog, I Think Mining – Sharp Opinions About Mines and Mining. Caldwell has spent most of his life as a consulting civil engineer to the mining industry and makes his home in Vancouver and the US.

I have spent the past few weeks in Rota, Spain with my son and family.  The sun shines on the house patio---most times. Athough some days the mist endures all day and it is cold.   Today the sun overcame the mists by about eleven a.m., and it was fun to sit in the son and read John Grisham's book The Last Juror.

Sometimes I come inside and work on the computer.  I read what is written on Mt Polley and update an EduMine course that I am writing on Risk Assessment, Decision Making, and Management of Mine Geowaste Facilities.  For the failure of Mt Polley tailings facility is the best possible current example of the failure of risk assessment, decision making, and management of geowaste facilities we know of.

I have previously concluded that the following risks were ignored or not noticed by design engineers, regulators, or owners:  an upstream perimeter embankment; too much water; a pool too close to the perimeter; too fast a drawdown of the water levels; and possibly differential foundation deformation at a change of perimeter alignment.

The made all the mistakes possible.  They implemented all the bad practice the industry had learnt by past events to avoid.  They exhibited an arrogance and confidence based on stupidity, youth, and subservience to clients & prejudice.

I am afraid that if I truly wrote what I believe & know, all associated with the tailings facility would sue me.  Just like in Grisham's novel.     For the fact is that the original designers had been warned for years that the embankment design was subject to potential failure.  They used the same design at dams that have also failed but of which I cannot write.  They were beholden to an ancient approach to dam construction used in South Africa, but not suitable for BC, yet cheap to do in BC and thus beliked by local mining companies.  They never made the necessary change from South African practice to the differences of BC conditions.

The dam design  was taken over by a British company that had no objective other than full time-sheets.  BGC had raided AMEC years before of its competent tailings engineers, and AMCE youth were left naked and beholden to computer analyses and bereft of shovel-turning expertise.  Many months before the failure, the joke at BC meetings was how BGC had gotten all the good tailings engineers from AMEC and how sad it was that the AMEC folk continued in honest attempts at what was not within their sphere of competence.

The failure of the Mt Polley tailings facility involves all the factors that lead to failure of a geowaste facility:

·         Poor initial design.

·         Continued optimism in the face of reality and warnings by Andy Robertson.

·         Fleeing of a bad project by the initial designers who protested in legal, but not honest terms,

·         A mine management that did not understand what they had.

·         Take-over by a reputed company devoid of its old experts and dominated by youth of skill in computer analyses but not shovel-ready methods.

·         A regulator utterly unable to regulate.  The nicest of them told me she was going to enhance her expertise by reading my EduMine courses on tailings.  Flattering but inadequate.

This failure was no Act-of-God.  This was human, company, institutional, governmental, and societal reality become incompetence.  See what I wrote on John Le Carre's The Night Manager.   There are no mysteries here; nothing unusual; nothing not done before;  no active villain; no evil protagonists.  Here are only normal human beings trying to do what we all try to do: work; produce; opine; earn a living; deal with the system we find ourselves in; beat out the other guy; apply what we know; and hope like hell it all works.  In this case it did not work and the system failed and the facility failed and the environment is screwed.

And the industry is revealed as NAKED.  The industry institutions protest in lame terms.  The organizations squirrel to sound sane, but reveal their prejudice and ignoble perspective with every new word.  The reporters tred carefully lest they offend (or get sued).   The government obfuscates and hides behind platitudes.  Even bloggers like me go careful, for the facts are suppressed, the informants silenced, the opinions attacked, and the threat of retribution ever-present.

If Morgenstern, Vick, and Van Zyl can cut through all this is a deep question.  The only one I would rely on for honesty is Vick.  The other two are hacks of the industry and will, no doubt, trim the sails of their conclusions to the exigencies of consulting futures.  Thus this plea to Vick: you are intelligent, honest, independent, and able.  Please gives us your honest, independent opinion,  Be not swayed by others.  Be not affected by considerations of the profits of future consulting assignments.  Care not for the servile adulation of minor engineers and mining hacks.  Be what I know you are:  a man of integrity, ability, and independence, independent of people who now and in the future may pay you for consulting advice, or who may give you money for research grants.


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