As depressing as Bre-X: a week of Imperial Metals commentary

Editor John Cumming of the Northern Miner lit into Imperial Metals after Mount Polley, comparing it to past mining fiascos.

The complete failure of the tailings dam at Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley copper–gold mine in Central B.C.’s Cariboo region on Aug. 4 is the most depressing thing to have happened in Canadian mining since the Bre-X Minerals debacle in 1997. It’s the worst tailings dam failure tied to a Canadian company since the Los Frailes disaster in Spain in 1998 (5 million cubic metres spilled) and the Omai spill in Guyana in 1995 (2.3 million cubic metres spilled).

The Vancouver Sun’s Barbara Yaffee writes that the disaster couldn’t come at a worse time with the salmon starting to spawn and a proposed pipeline in the mix.

[This] environmental catastrophe is bound to have a chilling effect on those in B.C. who otherwise might have been open to being convinced that — should Enbridge comply with the province’s five conditions and the 209 imposed by a federal review panel — well, maybe the job-generating Northern Gateway project would be worth the presumably diminished risk.

Jack Caldwell says wait for the results from any independent board that investigates the incident. What will be found is probably a chain of failure:

Standard accident theory tells us that an accident occurs when many small incidents or omissions line up. It is like a pile of Swiss cheese with hole in it: inevitably a pile of cheese with hole in it will result where holes line up and you could poke a knitting needle through the holes without penetrating the cheese.

So I believe that even an independent board of experts will be forced to find as I write above, with more detail of course. It is inevitable they will find all in the chain at fault. And they will conclude it is yet another example of the basic rule: sometimes ten small faults or omission line up and the result is disaster.

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