Find Your Risk Dragons!

Risk - to human health and life, to the environment. It's one of those fuzzy things that everyone has different perceptions about - how serious it is, whether something should be done to address it, how critical or impactful the consequences of an occurrence could be. 

A thing that we can be blind to, become lazy about, particularly when no failures or instances occur over a long duration. Or when past failures had consequences which were deemed to be small.

Risk - something that should be assessed, avoided and addressed, mitigated. But to what end can an unknown be tempered?

My Standpoint

I open with this because I spent the last week in a number of sessions where failures, management systems, reporting, transparency, accountability and continuous improvement were all covered within the content - and in many instances seemed to tie directly to the environmental and social risks associated with my industry. First, at the annual conference of the Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum, and second at my local AGM for the Association of Professional Engineers and Geosciences Saskatchewan.

By far, my biggest takeaways from this past week were that in my industry, we need to be doing a better job of avoiding and managing risks - through several strategies:

  • prevention, and continuous improvement through operational, technological and design innovations,
  • increased mentoring and professional development with those who design, operate, manage, and monitor our high-risk facilities,
  • improvement of educational programs, training and awareness - for all, and
  • transparency and communication around inherent risks, risk avoidance and mitigation strategies, and residual risks associated with our projects.

Inherent Risks

Inherent risk can be introduced in many ways:

  • Those caused by nature, such as changing climate and weather events, unknown (undiscovered!) ground conditions, or the shape and stability of the landforms surrounding our projects
  • Those caused by the complexity of systems and designs, including interdependencies between various processing components and/or operating systems, particularly once the units are in operation and where the operators have changed several times
  • Those caused by scale, as we are constructing infrastructure that is ever-increasing in size, both by height, width, length and volume (tailings facilities come distinctly to mind for me here...), and finally,
  • Those caused by time, as we are continuously pursuing that infrastructure that is so durable it can last 'forever', that it can continue to maintain positive performance with minimal maintenance over extended periods of time

It is in these regards that we are pushing boundaries, and possibly asking too much.

Going too far?

For design, we have collected information about the natural landforms and the potential fluctuations in climate and weather, we have sampled and measured the subsurface materials and characteristics, but have we collected enough?

We make decisions based on the limited information we have, and assume that the testing we have done on the materials at lab and pilot scales are translatable to the natural world, and will hold true. We run sensitivity analyses, perform calculations, and add factors of safety to allow for variability against our bases of design - what we know from experience, what we have measured, and what we have assumed.

It is unfortunate that we have no real proofs of concept to base all of our work on - those long term projections, the promise of durability of the materials we will use, the hope that the climatic conditions to which the infrastructure will be exposed will not drastically change. If we did, we might be able to let ourselves rest assured that we have put risk to bed.

We assume that systems will continue to be operated according to the parameters for which they were designed. And yet, even with continuous monitoring and personnel onsite, regular inspections, and regular reviews of ongoing performance of these infrastructure, we may still be unaware of small changes that have been made at an operational level that have introduced a risk to the system as a whole.

Those little things that are introduced over time, with changes in personnel, changes in management, changes in ownership, and sometimes, changes in the Engineer of Record. Where each time a change happens, a little less becomes known about the risks that need to be monitored, to be managed, and to be controlled.

Risk Trending

In my industry, some of the greatest risks we face are associated with tailings and waste facilities. 

Given the last two larger failures we have experienced, Mt. Polley in British Columbia, and Somarco in Brazil, there has been a lot of highlight and discussion around the causes of failure and the risks associated with tailings infrastructure. A lot of work has been done, both in terms of the investigations and cleanup of the actual sites, but also in regard to reviews and updates to management and operating standards, regulatory processes and actual requirements. Updates on the followup investigations and cleanup efforts may be found in the links provided.

One of the most recognized experts in the mining sector, Dr. Andrew Robertson, Principal of Robertson GeoConsultants Inc., regularly speaks about risks associated with our infrastructure, and I wanted to share his thoughts conveyed at the last CIM tailings and mineral waste workshop.

Based on actual data and trending of past, current and proposed tailings and waste facilities, for every 1/3 century, we are:

  • increasing tailings volumes ~10 fold
  • increasing waste deposits areas ~5 fold
  • increasing dam and dump heights ~2 fold 

We know,                    

Risk = Likelihood x Consequences

For dams, we can assume that:

  • likelihood is 'somewhat' proportional to height
  • consequences are 'somewhat' proportional to volume

And so, for every 1/3 century we are increasing our risk

~ 2 x 10 = 20 fold!

Does this trend seem to be diminishing? Not at this point in time.

What can we do?

And so, we need to become ever more vigilant. Continue searching for gaps in knowledge, training, management guidance documents, and more. We need to continue making improvements to the practices that have been reviewed (as a result of past failures). And we need to become more proactive in risk avoidance measures within the designs of our systems.

Dr. Robertson suggests the following:

  • better investigation and characterization
  • better analytical tools and analyses
  • better designs with better technologies
  • risk assessment and avoidance, mitigation
  • vigilance on ensuring the quality of construction according to specifications
  • vigilance on ensuring the operation of infrastructure according to design
  • ongoing monitoring, and rapid response to unexpected behaviours
  • emergency preparedness and response
  • checking, checking and checking again

Watch for further articles about risk, risk reduction and continuous improvement!