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Blue-Ribbon Panel to Lead Mount Polley Probe

Engineering experts tasked with uncovering what, or who, caused the spill.

By Bob Mackin 18 Aug 2014 |

North Vancouver-based journalist Bob Mackin, a regular contributor to The Tyee, has reported for local, regional, national and international media outlets since he began as a journalist in 1990. Find his Tyee articles here.

The chair of the panel appointed by the B.C. government to probe the Mount Polley mine disaster told a European Commission seminar on 2001 that there were "too many" failures of mine waste containment structures and their reliability was "among the lowest of earth structures."

"Risk-taking on the part of all stakeholders is excessive," wrote Norbert Morgenstern, civil engineering professor emeritus at the University of Alberta, in a technical paper for a September 2001 seminar in Sweden on Safe Tailings Dam Constructions.

Morgenstern recommended better construction and third-party reviews, an end to the conflict between short-term profitability and long-term containment integrity and "ensuring that the responsibility for failure of waste containment structures is understood at the highest corporate levels."

Regulatory agencies, he also recommended, "should devote more concern to the details of corporate policy regarding mine waste management procedures as opposed to being rule driven."

Joining Morgenstern on the B.C. panel, announced today, are Colorado geotechnical engineer Steven G. Vick, who chaired the investigation of the August 1995 Omai tailings dam failure for the Guyana government, and Prof. Dirk Van Zyl of the University of B.C.'s Norman B. Keevil Institute of Mining Engineering.

Dam inspection ordered

Their aim is to identify how the Aug. 4 failure at the Imperial Metals-owned mine happened, find what technical, management or other practices contributed to the failure and recommend any changes to reduce the potential for future incidents. Jan. 31, 2015 is the panel's report deadline. Kevin Richter, assistant deputy minister of Transportation, was named secretariat to assist the panel.

Meanwhile, B.C.'s Chief Inspector of Mines also ordered independent dam safety inspections of tailings storage sites by Dec. 1. Annual inspections under the Health, Safety and Reclamation Code for Mines are due at the end of March 2015, but did not require independent, third-party reviews.

B.C. has 98 permitted tailings facilities at 60 metal and coal mines.

Coincidentally, Imperial Metals’ vice-president of corporate development is Gordon Keevil, nephew of Teck founder Norman Keevil Sr. The UBC mining school was named in honour of Teck chair Norman Keevil Jr. after a $7.5 million donation in 2006 from Teck and its partners, including the Hallbauer Family Foundation, AMEC Inc., Silver Standard Resources, Robert Quartermain, Steven G. Dean and Dr. Klaus M. Zeitler.

Imperial Metals was among 14 corporate and individual donors who put $20 million toward the $75-million Earth Systems Science Building at UBC in 2008.  [Tyee]

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