In Control and Capable?

As a young miner, there was a meme going around my company that we needed to demonstrate to management that we were “in control and capable”.  That little catchphrase has been buried in the back of my mind throughout my mining career.  The slogan unearthed itself just last week while reading the news about yet another tailings dam breach. And then the question surfaced…..  Is the mining industry in control?

The tragic failure of the Samarco iron ore tailings dam in Brazil that submerged the small town of Bento Rodrigues in mud last week is a sobering reminder that mineral extraction is a hazardous business.  At least six people are dead with more than 19 still missing.

A little over a year ago, Imperial Metals  Mount Polley spill in Canada  caused a major environmental hazard and thankfully there was no loss of human life, although drinking water quality was affected.

Add in the recent statistics for pit wall failures in open pit mines or go so far as to include cave-ins or explosions and we see the single pattern emerging…..  Mine owners are making independent decisions that lead them to believe they are optimizing their mine operations.

Tallying the calamities in the last five years, we can safely say that mine failures have been on the rise. These failures are not just occurring in developing countries.  We have yet to see governments take action to enforce global standards.

The United Nations Environment Program and the mining industry have established guidelines which need to be further developed in to standards.

Guidelines consist of recommended, non-mandatory controls that help support standards or serve as a reference when no applicable standard is in place.  Guidelines can be viewed as best practices that are not usually requirements, but are strongly recommended. They could consist of additional recommended controls that support a standard, or help fill in the gaps where no specific standard applies.

Standards consist of specific low level mandatory controls that help enforce and support Guidelines. Standards reflect the acceptable level of quality or attainment.  Basically, standards are a yardstick; we don’t make or write standards, we follow them.

Thank goodness we have global standards in the airline industry.  When an airplane crashes, we analyze the crash against standards as much as possible and try to learn so we can further reduce the number of crashes.

How can we determine if the mining industry is in control without measuring and reporting against standards?

Written by John F. Gravel