Mt Polley failure

I am just copying some comments I recently made on the Mt Polley failure:

The causes of the Mt Polley failure were numerous, encompassing the entire lifecycle of the facility (site selection, design, construction, operation and maintenance). Jack Caldwell’s blog has lots of good info. There are numerous defenses to prevent failures: robust design, quality construction, 3rd party auditing, government oversight, emergency procedures, trained/competent staff, accident reporting, up-to-date operating manual, spillways, etc. When all these little mistakes aligned into the perfect storm failure occurs. It would have only taken one party doing a better job to prevent this – even including the local First Nations tribal band. They could have better judged the risks of impounding water in a net precipitation area within an earthen embankment designed for tailings – perhaps the engineer could not communicate the risk science in a relevant, understandable manner. I suspect much will come to light as to the failure of that decision-making during 2009-11 when the mine expanded, applied for discharge rights, and was denied. The time bomb kept ticking when there was an overtopping accident last year, yet no executive-level flags were raised. Much of this was foreseeable. I hope we can learn and improve. I think we will. Stats show we have improved. But dams and risks are growing bigger and the uncertainties of climate and the future increases severity of failure.

Risk = probability x consequence.

Tolerability and acceptability is a critical discussion, and poorly lacking in the public realm. Thanks for the comments Roy, Chris, Harvey, Franco and others. I agree with Roy we must separate risks imposed on society with those we personally subject ourselves to, and impose lower tolerance criteria for tailings dams. There will always be a grey area within ALARP (as low as reasonably possible) and I suspect 95% of failures occur within there, so it’s appropriate to demand a higher standard once again, at all previously mentioned places (management, operation, regulatory,etc). Failures and their severity will increase over time – in centuries or millenia all mine wastes fail and will pollute the environment, adversely affecting lives of future generations. Our contemporary management theories discount closure costs to almost nil, and don’t consider costs in the really long term, so these failures will continue to tarnish our industry and cause unduly harm. We should approach tailings with a longer view of future uncertainties, our best guess failure rate, and the predicted consequences.

Thank god this failure did not kill anyone or cause grossly unjustified harm to the local community. It’s very sad and troubling nonetheless.

My concern is how to make mine waste facilities more transparent. Cannot UAVs and satellites monitor operations quickly and cheaply? Isn’t the internet and mobile devices easy methods to share design/construction/operation data? Can’t we discuss mining risk tolerability in social media more to refine our boundaries? I think transparency and disclosure is a key first step to more robust risk management and accountability. And perhaps less discounting, and more dry stacked tailings too!

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.
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?