Four years ago, Canada hosted the
annual international Mine Closure
Conference. This was the first time the
event had been hosted in Canada, and there
was a sense of urgency. At the time, Directive
074, an initiative spearheaded by Alberta’s
Energy Resources Conservation Board to stem
the flow of fine tailings into the ponds at oil
sands mines, was still young; its ambitious targets
meant to reclaim the land covered by the
tailing were in force; and the story of the hundreds
of ducks drowned in muddy tailings
was still fresh in the public’s mind.
At that conference, consulting engineer
Andy Robertson presented on the mounting
concern that the growing number of tailings impoundments present to
their surroundings and, subsequently, to the mining industry. His message:
if we continue to build larger mines to extract lower grade ore and hold the
resultant tailings behind correspondingly massive dams, then the risk of
catastrophic failure will skyrocket. Robertson’s presentation was impressive
because it was so matter-of-fact.
The Mount Polley dam failure in 2014 has refreshed the urgency and,
as contributing editor Eavan Moore details in “Muddy Waters,” engineers, mining companies and regulators are under pressure to make
changes, but are uncertain of what exactly those changes ought to be. At
the same time, others are pushing for a rebalancing of the scales that weigh
the risk of failure against cost of preventing it. The result would be a more
thorough accounting of the financial and social impact of a tailings dam
failure and, likely, a greater incentive for some projects to invest in technologies
that could cut the risk of such an event.
With that in mind, I should note that Alberta regulators scrapped
Directive 074 earlier this year. Oil sands operators had consistently failed
to hit the targets the directive, created in 2009 in part as a response to the
bird kill in the tailings pond the previous year, had set. The technical challenges
proved to be more complex than the policy and its timelines
allowed. A draft of new provincial guidelines is imminent.
Today, with many new developments on hold, is a critical opportunity
to dedicate the time and energy that the challenge of tailings management
and its regulation requires without tight deadline pressure. In policy making
as in engineering, poor design will result in failure.
Mining under the microscope