Mining History is Great

Mining history is great. Today I learned that Arthur Wilfley and Carrie Everson, mineral processing legends of the late 19th century, never received formal technical training in metallurgy or chemistry. Yet their groundbreaking achievements (the shaking table and flotation) remain fundamental processes employed today over a hundred years later at the biggest metal mines in the world. Currently, I am currently reading Mass Destruction by Timothy LeCain, a revisionist history of the first large-scale porphyry copper mine: Bingham. Around 1903, mining engineer Daniel Cowan Jackling convinced skeptical investors of his pioneering methods to exploit low grade (<2% Cu) ores from the Bingham Canyon Mine in Utah. Of course, the rest is history. Today, most of our copper is extracted from similar giant porphyry deposits mostly located around the ring of fire.

Daniel C. Jackling.gif                  image

My interest in mining history began in Alaska, when my first boss gave me a copy from a 1963 Alaska Sportsman magazine on the history of the Chandalar Gold Mining district written by Irving Reed. The article focused on the prospecting and social leadership of Frank Yasuda, otherwise known as “Japanese Moses”, a man who was a true Arctic Hero.

photo of Frank Yasuda photo of Yusada family

Another legend, Ernest Wolff (author of the essential Handbook for the Alaskan Prospector) wrote an incredible biography of the man and place in Frank Yasuda and the Chandalar, but good luck finding a copy of that anywhere. Working in the Brooks Range in a place steeped in legend and lore, I next came to the wonderful tales of USGS geologist John Mertie, who’s wife wrote Thirty Summers and a Winter. imageThirty-one expeditions recounted in the book gave me a new respect for the role pack horses played in opening up remote mineral districts, and their unfortunate deaths at the end of every season’s work. My favorite mining historian and author has to be Clark Spence. I have read three of his books and they’ve all been excellent. The most intriguing is The Northern Gold Fleet, an authoritative tome of the development of Fairbanks and Nome district gold dredging technology. Brilliant. I hope the new Alaska Mining Hall of Fame building in downtown Fairbanks will encourage more interest and sharing of these stories.

          Conrey Placer Mining Company: A Pioneer Gold-Dredging Enterprise in Montana, 1897-1922

 

This year studying in Cornwall I’ve been extremely fortunate to indulge in mining heritage. Less than a mile down the ancient road from our farm cottage is the Kennal Vale Gunpowder works.

Now a beautiful nature reserve, it’s a hidden industrial gem which was fundamental in the development of the tin and copper. Still existing are the old grinding mills over a hundred years old, and the system of leats and water wheels to power the mixing and grinding of charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter in producing gunpowder which was exported all over the world. Cornwall is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and I’ll need another page to dedicate to explorations from St. Agnes to St. Just and of course, the central Camborne, Redruth, and Gwennap districts. Photo’s below give a glimpse of that heritage. Let’s not forget too the remarkable China Clay deposits of Cornwall; far more important than the high-grade underground tin and copper loads, the kaolin of Cornwall remains an economic engine, representing the most valuable British export after North Sea petroleum.

Crackington Haven's limbs and hinges      

 

The next series of books to read will stay focused on porphyry copper in the American West. It’s a topic I’m particularly interested in because of the Pebble ore deposit located in Southwest Alaska. The books span from operations across Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Montana so if you have any recommendations, email me. There’s been a lot of mistakes made in mining history’s past, and many lessons to be learnt, but there are also stories of leadership, courage, and hope. Sharing these stories and remembering our past failures will help ensure future outcomes provide more positive change.

Fantastic Tailing Failures: A Necessary Evil to Mining Engineering?

“Twelve died by drowning underground in the disaster…the foreman’s desperate attempt to save the dyke may have caused its destruction.”

[Bafokeng 1974]

 

“…before the inhabitants could be warned a load bang was heard, followed by the wave of tailings [2.5m high] that engulfed the village.” 17 killed.

[Merriespruit 1994]

 

“…there was a tremor and a loud rumbling. He clung to the tailings delivery pipe…and was let down gently as this subsided into the gap.” [Simmergo]

I was absorbed this afternoon reading a chapter in Geoffrey Blight’s Geotechnical Engineering for Mine Waste Storage Facilities entitled Failures of mine waste storages. The quotes above are taken from examples of overtopping failures, one of the most common failure modes. The recounting of these disasters is gripping, fascinating, and crucial; as learning from mistakes is how engineering has historically advanced. Between 1965 to 1996, there were 1,065 people killed by failures – an average of 34 deaths per year. Although this risk is miniscule compared to motor vehicle death rates, it’s obviously unacceptable, and these stories are tragic because they are real and should have been avoided. Other failures often highlighted:

1965
El Cobre
Chile
300
village buried
1966
Aberfan
Wales
114
116 children
1972
Buffalo Creek
USA
118
4,000 homeless
1985
Stava
Italy
268
1996
Sgurigrad
Bulgaria
107

 

Anyone reading Jack Caldwell’s excellent Blog I THINK MINING will be familiar with these stories and many others deftly described by an expert. I think it’s important reading material to any aspiring mining employee, and to rip off another good quote from Blight:

Mine waste storages are very large structures, easily visible from space, that have very long operating lives and have often not been properly planned or carefully operated. They are under construction for the whole of their operating lives and are operated by a succession of people, not all of whom are dedicated to carrying out their assigned tasks o the best of their abilities, not all of whom are properly trained and not all of whom understand why they have to undertake certain tasks and what the consequences of negligence may be. Not all of the workers can recognized that a dangerous situation may be developing, and not all of them know the correct course of action to be taken in an emergency…Most important of all, the operation of a mine’s waste storage is a net cost to the mine, a deduction from the bottom line and …is operated for the benefit of its share-holders and there are few mine managers who, to safeguard their livelihood, will not view the waste storage operation with an ungenerous eye and attitude.

Inspiring, exciting – if not very flattering – stuff; maybe there should be a mine waste Hippocratic Oath for maintenance staff, equipment operators, foremen, engineers and managers? I only wish I had started learning about the complicated, unpredictable world of soil mechanics earlier.

Black silicosis and South African gold

For almost a hundred years South Africa’s gold mines claimed to be leading the world in safety, medical surveillance and compensation, but a careful reading of the history suggests that was an illusion. The industry’s failure to create safe workplaces and to compensate migrant workers for occupational disease underpinned its commercial success and allowed the costs of production to be shifted to rural communities.                                                                                  (McCulloch, p.13)

I really enjoyed the Hazard and Risk Assessment course I took in 2012 at the Camborne School of Mines. Half the course was taught by Robert Pine, calculating hazard probabilities and assessing geo-technical risk. The other half was taught by Pat Foster. It focused more on the human side, about managing health and safety systems and promoting the “zero harm” safety culture. Sadly, an aspect of the course that was lacking was a serious engagement with occupational disease. I know next to nothing about silicosis or exposure limits, but the book I’ve just finished helped open my eyes to the issue within South African gold mining history. A recent, popular study states that approximately 1/5 of older, black South African gold miners are burdened with silicosis. When probably 1/5 to 1/4 of MSc graduates will be working in a region embroiled in an unjust, exploitative history of racial discrimination, migrant black labor, and with a modern health pandemic of HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, I think it’s irresponsible that we didn’t once mention this on our course.

The book I read is South Africa’s Gold Mines & The Politics of Silicosis written by Jock McCulloch. There are dozens of similar books, hundreds of articles, and the scientific knowledge has been available for over a century. In fact, South Africa first administered compensation for silicosis beginning in 1912. Since mining on the Witwatersrand began in 1886, it was known that the conglomerate ore body had a high silica content and therefore the use of pneumatic drills and gelignite explosive would produce clouds of dust which could destroy a miner’s lungs in a few years. South Africa was also the first to regulate blasting, water-down drilling and require ventilation to improve conditions, back in 1916. But the story is not about engineered solutions, technical findings or scientific communities; the story is fairly straight forward – corporate gold mining profits depended on hiding a pandemic of silicosis in black migrant workers for almost a century. It’s a dire social legacy of the mining industry, and it requires looking through the lenses of politics, social norms, and justice – it is a case of corporate social irresponsibility.

Since 2006, an increasing number of lawsuits threaten the large mining houses to the tune of hundred of millions of pounds. Claimants charge that the risk of lung disease via silica dust was not protected for or compensated. More litigation info here. The mining industry defense relies on the idea of ignorance, arguing it was a victim of failed science and did not understand the severity of risk faced by employees. The history is complex and more dramatic than the book title suggests. Over a dozen large conferences and official enquiries have been held in South Africa on silicosis, causing havoc and conflict over administering a medical system forced to minimize compensation costs. Doctors, activists, and miners continue a struggle to reconcile historic injustices which are impossible to deny. There may be up to 300,000 claimants, and I cannot offer any suggestions as to how compensation could work. I only present some aspects of the book I found interesting:

Gold Miner Silicosis

  • Stratford Commission 1943 – Chamber of Mines ‘official’ silicosis rate 0.2%, but more likely closer to or exceeding the modern rate of 22% and if that latter rate applied, compensation benefits would equal ~ 300,000,000 GBP, compared to 1963 company profits of 11,822,000 GBP. The cost of lung disease was clearly shifted onto labour-sending communities, and if that likelihood of risk was so prevalent the mines should be closed. (p47)
  • Other report of 1943 on Remuneration and Conditions of Employment of Natives agreed that “mine’s profitability depended upon externalizing the costs of production, either by paying below-subsistence wages or by not treating or compensating black miners with tuberculosis.” (p99) This is not brought up in Mine Economics lectures, which emphasize the cost impact of labour, but further mystify the human cost on labour-sending communities and hide the prevalence of mining-induced disease and misery.
  • Dr. Gerrit Schepers evidence before Beyers Commission in 1952: many cases reviewed of black miners “in the process of dying”, some who had simply been worked to death. “Whites survived on average three years after retirement. Blacks who had worked three consecutive contracts were often dead a year after they left the mines.” Tuberculosis rates were very high and most cases sent home on sick trains with no compensation; the horrendous impact of tuberculosis was common knowledge at the medical Bureau but staff members faced 10,000 GBP fine and 10 years imprisonment for breaking confidentiality agreements; therefore most openly voted against good conscience in order to retain their pensions in Britain. The attitude of the medical Bureau was to wait until the employee is sick and can’t work. (p112)
  • Tuberculosis “Death Trains” reported in the 1954 Oosthuizen Enquiry: 700 sick miners (50% from outside South Africa) repatriated annually to villages. Fitness for travel determined by ability to stand up, and common occurrence to die on the train. Infected men spread disease in villages, contributing to epidemic. (p119)
  • Leon Commission of 1995 (p.145) in chapter ‘The Sick Shall Work’ finally gave voice to black miners, the “men without qualities”, and finally acknowledged that tens of thousands had contracted silicosis on the mines but were never diagnosed and never received compensation. The social and economic costs of this racism and greed cannot be easily calculated.

I would not expect a Masters-level science course in the engineering field to detour into the fields of social justice, regional history, or medical anthropology. But I do know that many classmates will become managers in the industry, and that most managers come from science and engineering disciplines – this makes obvious sense. And from this book it is clear to me that prejudiced social norms and industrial segregation worked hand in hand for over a century in South Africa to conceal the tragic effect of disease causing unimaginable pain, suffering, and death. Mining can be an agent of human suffering and social conflicts.

Now my next book to distract from exam revision and geostatistics will be In Good Company, claiming to tell the story of morals and markets, an anatomy of the corporate social responsibility pursued by Anglo American.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aussie Shakers–A Collision of Social Media, Perceptions of Safety, and Corporate External Relations

No doubt at the Australian Mining Safety Conference next month in Brisbane one of the hot topics of discussion over wine, spirits and canapés will be the firing by Barminco managers of fifteen  employees at Gold Field’s Agnew Mine north of Kalgoorlie.
The 30-second You Tube hit has garnered nearly 1.5 million views, and the firing (and permanent ban from all Barminco operations) has been publicized in over 300 media outlets. There is a 2,400 strong Facebook fan page promoting their re-instatement and within the Mining Industry Professionals group  on LinkedIn (90,000 members) the discussion has garnered nearly 200 comments, by far the most popular topic. There, 99% comments disagree with the decision taken by Barminco. However, one senior environmental, health and safety officer for Barminco stressed that the media has not reported the whole facts.
image
Barminco provides underground contract mining services, and actively promotes their success by at the Agnew gold mine from increased productivity. No local managers have provided explanations or interviews about their actions, but the client Gold Fields has dismissed rumors about contract pressures factoring into the decision. Dismissal letters reportedly state that “they had breached safety and undermined Barminco’s reputation”.
Two of the axed miners have provided interviews. One, 28-year old Stephen Dixon (stripped to his underwear in the video), has launched an unfair dismissal court case. Another, Brendon Spanhake, is simply desperate to find another job and laments: “I regret it for sure – I wish I never did it”.
The knee-jerk reaction handed to the eight dancers and seven spectators challenges modern strong-arm approaches to safety. The LinkedIn discussion provides several interesting points I regurgitate here:

 

  • Apply the “Reasonableness Test”:Would Barminco have acted in absence of the public visibility? (probably not)
    • Did the employees willingly violate a statutory regulation or requirement and willingly impact their safety and/or the safety of others such that a person or persons could have been seriously injured or killed? (probably not)
“…in relation to crib breaks, you don’t switch off and ignore directives and obligations because you’re having a break, this is a ridiculous concept in a mining environment…Their actions were not very career enhancing. If you work in mining…you really need to understand your obligations and constraints, they would have known these, and still chose to ignore them; there were consequences to that. This is not about a them-and-us management decision, or an ill-informed corporate decision; it in absolutely no way represents any abuse of power; rather it is about stepping out of line in a very regulated and generally safe industry, which they with full knowledge chose to do…the decision was the correct one.”
  • Stress and boredom are two common root causes of accidents and “Harlem Shake team building” is now a legit corporate exercise.
  • Lack of Management Control is the main issue (possibly because of recent new CEO). Lack of communication and trust by both parties (workers and managers) produced a “Prisoner’s Dilemma” game with detrimental outcomes for both parties (lost jobs, bad PR).There is a double-standard as Barminco ignored a previous breach of safety standards in 2007
    • Barminco fears social media and cannot control those risks
    • Could a positive link to video been possible, ie. ‘our worker’s love their job so much they are dancing at 2:30am’
  • “Clearly they run a strict, rule based system with severe punishment for non-compliance, and clearly its an utter failure.”
Information available suggest Barminco was fixated on the perception of safety in and of itself, and could not incorporate the public threat of social media embarrassment into any sort of positive outcome.
Here is a list of pro’s and con’s I made to summarize the debate, which will now surely disappear into the courts…
I personally think the video is hilarious.
Pro Miners
· Fun, de-stressing, laughable dance
· Positive motivator and viral hit, good for employee moral
· Company logo removed
· Safety equipment (boots, cap, lights) worn
· Safety considerations made before event
· Productivity schedule not impacted (probably more productive)
Against Miners
· Actions were horseplay, plain and simple
· Online publicity would bring company into disrepute
· Permission to go underground and supervision procedures may have been subverted
· Minor safety infractions (beneath drill jumbo, one worker’s safety gear off)
· Mobile phone/video recorder brought underground, minor violation
· Client (Goldfields) would receive blame/embarrassment
· If accident had occurred (extremely unlikely), the disaster would have been very costly to Barminco and Goldfields
· Without action, similar stunts may escalate risks
I’ve tried to play devil’s advocate for the managers, but I personally believe their decision was the wrong one, and it will be proven in the courts, in the “cribs”, and across social media.
The challenge of social media in the mining industry underpins this story of the Agnew Mine Harlem Shakers. Blogger Jamie Ross optimistically suggests mining companies pursue online social media in order to build their reputations-identity, network, and share knowledge:
“Mining companies need to be aware tat their staff, stakeholders and customers now have unparalleled ability to share their thoughts and perceptions of their organization with the entire world, whether positive or critical. But in return, companies are also provided with the ability to immediately and widely support or rebuke these thoughts to the exact same audience.”

 

EduMine offers an online (and occasional live webcast) entitled Social Media and Mining. Course author and UBC M.Eng. grad Zoe Mullard explains one success:
“One company that has taken advantage of social networking tools to engage shareholders is TVI Pacific, a mid-size mining and mineral exploration company with various global operations. The use of social media is allowing the company to increase transparency and share information, as they will post answers to questions that are emailed and host discussions on their Facebook page. Through online conversations and disclosure on their social media forums, they have been able to ensure that shareholders have access to answers and to correct and timely information, without having to wait for third party stock news sites (such as Stockhouse) to disseminate the information.”

 

I believe social media is critical for companies to engage with aggressively, if not least because mining opponents have already done so successfully. The Aussie miners have demonstrated not only the multi-faceted perceptions of safety and need for positive communication and trust, but they have also revealed the vulnerability of a mining company to social media. But social media will not go away, and I am excited to see what new opportunities arise for the mining industry to get creative in forging new ways to work, share knowledge, and be responsible agents of mineral development.

Pebble opponents misunderstand Carroll’s resignation

A few days ago the top headline in the mining industry was the resignation of Anglo American CEO Cynthia Carroll. The news item was covered in Alaskan press by ADN and Alaska Dispatch because of Anglo’s 50% stake in the Pebble Project, the 10 billion tonne copper, gold, and molybdenum resource underneath Bristol Bay’s headwaters. Although the story was not widely read in Alaska, it did get a large response from social media. There were over a hundred people sharing the link on Facebook and Twitter, more than almost every other news item. Pebble-opponents lauded this as a victory, proclaiming “YESSS” and remarking that Carroll was a crook, spin doctor, carpetbagger, and soul less.

Strangely, opponents of the Pebble project mistook Carroll’s departure as a victory which might halt development. What they should have done was reflect on what might have been lost in Carroll’s leadership. Carroll’s legacy was, without a doubt, safety.

When I look at Carroll’s legacy at Anglo, I think it’s unfortunate she resigned, but I understand why. Shareholders had been pressuring her to quit for weeks, mainly because of poor share price performance compared to rivals BHP and Rio Tinto. On specific terms, she was criticized for:

 

“But whatever her business performance, Ms Carroll deserves praise for challenging the culture of Anglo – and the natural resources industry – towards safety.” Financial Times

Carroll was the first woman, the first non-South African, and the first non-insider to run the company. Moreover, Cynthia Carroll committed herself to, and successfully transformed, safety at Anglo American. A safety-reorientation was a badly needed cultural change where complacent and cavalier attitudes were causing over 40 deaths a year. My health and safety professor Pat Foster said today that Carroll’s legacy with regards to safety was “phenomenal” and I believe that. When taking the helm in 2007, Carroll undertook a review of safety across Anglo, being particularly frustrated by conditions and especially attitudes at South African platinum operations. She says:

That was it. I refused to accept that fatalities were an inevitable by-product of mining. There was only one way to send that message throughout the company. We would shut down the world’s largest platinum mine, at Rustenburg, which employed more than 30,000 people. And we would do so immediately.

The CEO of the platinum division probably thought that my directive was meant mostly as a public relations gesture—that after a perfunctory safety check we would resume production as swiftly as possible. That was not what I had in mind. I wanted an indefinite shutdown, during which we would fundamentally overhaul our safety procedures with a top-to-bottom audit of our processes and infrastructure followed by a complete retraining of the Rustenburg workforce.

Cynthia Carroll simultaneously improved the profitability of the operation and reduced fatalities by two thirds. She demanded rigorous safety audits and spearheaded new collaboration between trade unions, industry and government in the “Tripartite Safety Summit”   Recently, the Los Bronces Chilean copper expansion project made a mining world record with over 25 million man-hours worked without a lost-time incident (LTI). The statistic should be viewed with a grain of salt, as it was just after Kinross’ Ft. Knox gold mine in Fairbanks surpassed 4 million man hours without a LTI when a mill worker fell to his death. The important point however, is that the coal-geologist by training effectively communicated and then led a safety transformation at Anglo. Pro-actively managing risk to achieve a zero-harm, fatality-free vision is Anglo’s stated number one priority. For this, I applaud Cynthia.

Improving safety performance does not necessarily equate to being a responsible mining company, but I would argue it is a very significant aspect of sustainable development. A safe mine works better, and a safe mine is probably going to take care of its’ environment more if it’s taking care of its employees. It is those employees after all who are responsible for operating with care and stewardship.

Now let me show an example of a miner who took a different approach to worker safety: the iron miner Hierro Shougang in Peru where workers have been striking, again. The Chinese firm bought the mine in 1992 (for 5 times more than the nearest bidder), is the only employer in San Juan de Marcona, and has been attacked for its’ corporate behavior ever since.

The miner sacked half the Peruvian employees when it began, brought across cheaper Chinese laborers, and paid average wages of $14/day (compared to Peru’s national average of $29/day). The company agreed to pay $150 million for community development, but paid $35 million instead, with a $14 million fine. When Peruvian doctors found that 12% of the workforce had pneumoconiosis, Shougang refused to acknowledge the findings. Several men have died, and there are probably many more on their way. The company controls water resources in the town, but only supplies drinking water for 4 hours a day. Shougang has been fined for outdated and unsafe equipment, and abandoned most company-owned housing whilst tripling the number of employees in existing houses. As could be expected there have been numerous labor revolts and the company has been cited by international bodies for brutally repressing these demonstrations. For many, Shougang’s corporate behavior in Peru is a cautionary tale of a mining company who does not care for its’ workforce. In 2003, the last year reported, there were over 170 injuries at the mine, including 2 fatalities. The question has been addressed here whether Chinese mining companies exploit more?

Shougang has seemingly fulfilled the worst expectations of Chinese companies—firing locals and bringing in Chinese workers at low wages in substandard conditions, showing little concern for health, safety or environmental considerations.

What relevance does this all have? Well, let’s pretend that anti-Pebble advocates are successful, and Anglo American decides that Pebble is not worth developing. A Chinese company like Shougang could very well be interested in takeover of the Pebble deposit. How would they develop it? Shougang is autonomous to Chinese policy, unaccountable to shareholders, and non-participatory to international forums and has had numerous environmental incidents in Peru including tailings collapse and water pollution.

Another possibility is that Anglo sells to another big player, like Vedanta Resources, India’s largest mining company. After developing the Lisheen zinc mine in Ireland (Europe’s largest zinc producer) using the best available techniques (including a triple liner under its’ tailings facility) and operating for approximately 10 years, Anglo sold to Vedanta. Now, Vedanta has stated they are looking at “debottlenecking” by removing obstacles in the mining process, and local residents of Tipperary are worried about future operations.

I don’t know what Pebble will decide once a definitive feasibility study is finished. I don’t know how the NEPA process will progress. But I do believe in the work that has been completed to date, and I do believe in the company’s leadership. Cynthia Carroll initiated a positive change in Anglo American operations, and I hope that continues at Pebble. So rather than using this resignation as an opportunity to make a final attack on Carroll like some video game, I encourage more critical thinking about who might lead Anglo next, and what commitments they will have to people and communities. Perhaps mine opponents can help analyze and critique Pebble’s stated commitment and identify some measurable indicators to their five core principles:

  1. Pebble will benefit Alaskans
  2. Pebble will co-exist with healthy fish, wildlife and other natural resources
  3. Pebble will apply the world’s best science
  4. Pebble will help build sustainable communities
  5. At Pebble, we listen before we act
What should these look like in practice? Or do Pebble opponents just want a fight?

Reborn Blog – Lesson Learned

Two years ago I started a blog. It was called “Along Fools Gold Road” and it was designed to be an educative distraction during a winter when there was no work. For 7 years, I worked for a small mineral exploration company located in Fairbanks, Alaska.

I made a big mistake a few months into the blog. I leaked some information about a project I had worked on in Arizona. The project was a scam, a fake geological report had been written and signed off by a professional geologist, and there was no gold deposit. I was upset for our client, I was angry against the scumbad property owners, and I was worried that this type of due diligence equating to a lot of wasted money, time, and effort was normal in the industry.

Lesson: Keep to confidentiality clauses.

Our client was threatened lawsuits in the millions, my boss’ small business was threatened, and I was threatened personally with lawsuit because of my defamation and breach of contract.

Now I’ve decided to blog again, as a young, new professional in the mining industry. Currently, I am completing a MSc in Mining Engineering at the Camborne School of Mines in Cornwall, UK. I’m also taking online courses with Edumine.

I plan to use this blog for some educational distraction, as a personal diary, and hopefully there will be an occasional insight or critical viewpoint.