Commemoration for Aberfan

50 years ago today a group of 116 young children and 28 adults were killed when a coal mine waste tip failed, burying the village school with 40,000 m3 of debris.

The day in 1966 when a coal tip buried a school in Aberfan, Wales.

The day in 1966 when a coal tip buried a school in Aberfan, Wales.

Type in “Aberfan” to YouTube and you will find numerous videos of the aftermath. It is unnerving and sad. Last year, I made a visit to Aberfan to see the place where it happened. The sense of tragedy remains. The stone terraced houses are the same, the Methyr Tydfil village and surrounding landscape is the same. The school walls and foundation were left in place, as a reminder of this horrible event that never should have been taken place.

The cemetery is too large for a village of this size. Several long rows of white graves mark the place where children are buried. In many cases two, three and four children from one family lay besides one another; ages 5, 7, 8. Some with grandparents alongside. The unspeakable grief resulted in long-term psychological conditions. 

The disaster was entirely preventable. You don’t need to be a geotechnical engineer to understand that a heap of weak material, soaking wet, and overlying a stream on a hillside will eventually move.

A strange rumbling noise was heard at 9.15am thought to be thunder. Seconds later, a 30 ft wave of coal, mud and water engulfed the school. Survivors received no counselling, and the National Coal Board denied responsibility.

Tailings and mine waste continue to be a scar to the mining industry. Merriespruit, Mt. Polley and Samarco are more recent tragic failures, fortunately with a smaller loss of life but nonetheless upsetting. For those interested in learning more, there are numerous places to look:

Tailings.info – a good description of tailings and responsible storage methods

Technology.infomine.com/tailingsmine – good general overview

Ground truth trekking mine tailings – laymen’s guide to tailings and risk, from Alaska.

Lindsay Newland Bowker’s Blog – an extremely well-informed blog sharing the insights on tailings risk and regulatory issues. Here is one recent publication on risk and public liability.

European Commission – recently passed new mine waste legislation to improve the safety including a Best Available Techniques reference document

Tailings and Mine Waste regular international symposia

I encourage other budding mining engineers, geologists and professionals to visit Aberfan. The scale of modern tailings and mine waste facilities are 10 times bigger, and risks still remain for many communities around the world. There are massive data gaps in our knowledge of how to engineer these structures to be safe, some which are over 400 metres in height. If you are interested in helping conduct this survey or want more information, feel free to email me at d.e.mcfarlane@exeter.ac.uk .

Hiatus

I went on a break from blogging. The reason:

Her name is Olive and she is 15 months old now.

wordle 4

My research interests

I also completed my degree in Mining Engineering. After that I started working at Camborne School of Mines, helping develop and deliver the first ever blended learning course in mining engineering. Last year I led residential tours through Alaska and Chile for mining professionals to learn and exchange ideas about mineral exploration and engineering. We visited high-grade underground gold mines in the Arctic, and with CODELCO, the world’s biggest surface and underground copper mines in the world in South America.

In 2016 I began working for HiTech AlkCarb as project manager. The EU research project is developing new exploration tools for critical raw materials (e.g. rare earths, niobium, tantalum, phosphate, scandium etc.). Check it out here: carbonatites.eu.

These rare metals found in carbonatites and alkaline rocks are the gateway to high-technology and green energy,  but how the deposits form is still a puzzle. Twelve partners from across Europe will look to Greenland, Mongolia, Germany, Italy, Malawi, Namibia and South Africa will work together to better understand the complex geological processes, and how to better develop these resources efficiently, and responsibly.

Keep up to date on our newsletter (email: hitech.alkcarb@exeter.ac.uk), or follow us on social media.

@HiTech_AlkCarb

HiTech AlkCarb on Facebook

@DylanEMcFarlane

Thanks! Next post in a couple months…

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.

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.