Humbled by the huge responsibility of engineers
From the June-July print issue, page 4. Editorial Comment.
Looking at aerial photographs of the 2014 Mount Polley Mine tailings spill, I was shocked by the size of the tailings pond. This one in the Cariboo Region of B.C. was four square kilometres. The perimeter dam wall that breached was 40 metres high. I’m told some of these tailing pond walls reach 300 metres high.
As reported on page 20, the repercussions of the disaster are ongoing for engineers, mine owners, and the government. The Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of B.C. (APEGBC), for example, has been revising its guidelines for engineers who work on dams. Plenty of that time has been spent clarifying the roles and responsibilities of the engineer-of-record. In most cases that pivotal individual will be a consulting engineer. Janet Sinclair, chief operating officer of APEGBC, told me the guidelines will, for example, make it clear that if the engineer-of-record sees a safety problem but the mine owner is not listening to his or her concerns, the engineer-of-record has a duty to report the situation to the Chief Inspector of Mines.
This May, the Auditor General of B.C. issued another report. It said the Ministries of Energy and Mines and Environment were not conducting adequate mine inspections and monitoring. On page 21 of the Auditor’s report, the government tersely responds: “The engineer-of-record is responsible for the overall performance of the structure as well as the interpretation of site conditions. The Regulator has to rely on the expertise and the professionalism of the engineer-of-record as the Regulator is not the designer.”
Those few words hold a world of significance for consulting engineers. Yes, the Ministry of Mines and Energy should be able to rely on the expertise and knowledge of the engineer-of-record for both designing and overseeing the ongoing safety of a dam. And yes, engineers are supremely capable of designing safe structures and providing expert advice.
But we all know that life sometimes gets in the way. People and circumstances change, but the engineer’s responsibility — and liability — continues. The Mount Polley investigations found that there had been many changes of personnel involved in overseeing the 25-year old dam — both within the mining company and as engineers-of-record. Over the years people move on to other projects, to other firms, they retire, they die.
There are also many hidden factors at play, not least being the pressure put on engineers by companies and owners. We heard that corporate pressure for profits contributed to other engineering disasters like the BP oil spill and the collapse of the roof at the Elliot Lake mall.
I’m humbled to realize the amount of responsibility that lies on the shoulders of engineers who design and verify these vast mining and other structures. As for ensuring absolutely that accidents don’t happen, all you can do is be as thorough and careful as you can.
And on the other front, be as courageous as you can when dealing with owners.