February 2013

Tailings truth-teller

Closure expert and blogger extraordinaire Jack Caldwell on leaving a legacy to be proud of

By Peter Braul

Courtesy of Jack Caldwell

Jack Caldwell has a life-long connection to mining. But unlike most people in the industry, he is not reluctant to speak out about it – warts and all. Growing up on a mine in South Africa gave him a taste for the industry, and now, having semi-retired from a fruitful mining consulting career, Caldwell is ripe with opinions, steeped in experience and committed to a future where we can walk away from mine sites with clarity of conscience and healthy pocketbooks. The expert in dry-stack tailings still takes on contracts with Robertson Geoconsultants for select clients who, he says, are prepared to pay to have him involved. All of which – not to mention his passion for brandy, opera and cycling – is fuel for his blog, Ithinkmining.com.

CIM: A lot of people in the industry are tight-lipped as a matter of policy. Why is blogging worth the risk?

Caldwell: You don’t have to write about what you are doing as a professional consultant to have opinions about the world of mining. I come across things inadvertently, and people send me things: reminders, hints, suggestions. And it’s good to put that down. Hopefully, my blog stimulates ideas, thoughts and discussions.

You get a whole gamut of responses. Some people respect me more for blogging, but there are a large number who are still angry with me, or who disagree with me vehemently. It’s quite extraordinary how many people email me privately asking for advice, discussion and the like. To be honest, I’ve met a fair number of very nice people through the blog – of course I don’t blog about them. So there’s been a personal reward, in terms of human interaction.

CIM: There are very few mining bloggers in our world. Why don’t more people do what you do?

Caldwell: I don’t know, and I wish it were different. The only reasons I can imagine are:

1) I’m getting old, so I’ve seen quite a lot.

2) I have time, mainly because when you live alone, in the evenings you don’t have to sit and watch television with your spouse.

3) Andy Robertson and InfoMine support me and encourage me even though many times I’ve written things that they wouldn’t have.

I’m lucky: I benefit from a unique environment, a unique opportunity and a unique age.

CIM: Would you invest in a mine that lets employees blog freely about their work?

Caldwell: If the blog was intelligent, not esthetical, and if it indicated good management practice, which obviously would translate into income, then yes, I would. The problem you would have as a mine manager is keeping tabs on it. I know one mining company that sought to have a blog in order to get its story out, but finally its lawyers looked at it and said “no.”

The industry is in a Catch-22. There are many critics and enemies of the mining industry who are only too ready to jump on any admissions of failure. So, for the industry to undertake an open, whole-hearted exposé of itself, as I do, is difficult and dangerous. Even when I criticize something, I think pretty hard about how I’m going to do it, because it could discredit the industry. I’ve tried to make clear that when I do criticize the industry, it’s because I believe in mining: I believe it can be done right, although I recognize it’s not always done right. And I’ve been criticized for thinking like that.

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