A number of times last year, at mines all over the globe, there was a failure: something happened and somebody died, or there was an environmental impact, and somebody was blamed, or fired.

I suspect that deep in human nature isthe belief that every accidenthas aculprit. I suspect that deep in human nature is the instinct to find the culprit, convict him (or her), and sacrifice them on the altar of blame and blood.

Butin thinking about some of 2007’s spectacular mine-related failures, I wonder if maybe many of them have no culprit. Maybe many of them are the result of mere lapses by nice people. Maybe many of them are what may be called “system failures.” Maybe even where people died or we now can predict a 1,000 years of negative geomorphologic impact, there is nobody so silly, negligent, or culpable that they should be marched to the altar of blame.

As a geotechnical engineer I am cognizant of Karl Terzaghi’s famous dictum that geotechnical failure is most often the result of the small, undetected, geological discontinuity.

My health & safety training enforced the idea that an accident is the end result of five to ten uncontrolled incidents–where an incident is merely a tiny lapse of no consequence in and of itself, but which when aligned with a few other incidents, death is the result. I was taught in health and safety training to control incidents; because then no alignment of incidents could occur and no deaths result.

Then there is the school of thought that says accidents happen when the system is just not up to the pressure put on it or the demands made of it.

Real-world examples of these theories abound. Here are some—I emphasizeI am speculating, not reporting fact in the following:

Huntington Mine: If only a senior rock-mechanics expert had looked at conditions; if only a competent regulator had reviewed and understood the consultant’s report; if only the system had demanded other technical approaches; if only the mine owners had not been so keen to push for profit; if only the ground had decided not to earthquake. (I suspect everybody involved is a nice person and personally responsible and competent to the extent of their knowledge and training.)

Bellavista Mine: If only the weak layer in the soil beneath the heap leach pad had been detected; if only the rise of groundwater level had been foreseen; if only the rains had not fallen so viciously; if only the regulator had asked the right questions; if only the shareholders had been a bit more patient. (Again, I suspect that all involved are nice, responsible, competent people in theirproper roles.)

Galore Creek: If only the surface water hydrologist had been part of the first team designing the tailings impoundment; if only the operations guys had not been so convincing about their ability to keep snow out of the channel; if only the cost estimator had had more real-world experience; if only the collective desire to develop a mine and bring employment to the locals had not been so cogent. Good people, poor results.

Kemess North: If only they had not decided to avoid action; if only they had done what they are employed to do; if only they had used lawyers instead; if only they had not shunted the burden to Malcolm Scoble. Good people with results that have been branded good and bad depending on your perspective.

In all these cases one or more of the following high-level philosophical concepts became reality:

  • The system was not up to the demands.
  • Good people lapsed and a chain of incidents collided.
  • A small overlooked detail shouted for and got attention.

Of course it is possible that in all these cases there is one really wicked, evil, ill-intentioned person just waiting to be pinpointed, convicted, and sacrificed. But somehow I feel the gods of propitiation will have to wait awhilebefore their altars are used.