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 .

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