I speak mining, and have done so for over 45 years. For most of that time, I have defended the industry from those ignorant or ill-informed of our activities. I have stressed that the occasional mine accident or dam failure was the exception that proved the general rule. We are, I said, diligent, committed to safety and better than the media paints us (and this is coming from someone who became a teenager one month before the Aberfan disaster of 1966 when a Welsh coal tip collapsed and killed 116 children).
I have reminded the seemingly ignorant or ill-informed that we are one of the three primary industries (the others being, of course, farming and fishing). I have stressed that the direct use of natural resources has been crucial in the economic growth of most developed nations, and that the exceptions to this rule can be counted on your fingers (they include Luxembourg, Monaco and Vatican City).
It is an uphill battle, and mining remains widely unappreciated. For example, poll your average European taxi driver for a list of primary industries, and very few are likely to mention mining (the more enlightened might guess steel- or brick-making). Hardly any of them will be able to name a leading mining company (although this experience might be different in Canada).
Moreover, I am changing my mind about defending our industry. There has been a spate of mining horror stories in the past few years, including fatal dam failures at Vale’s Córrego do Feijão iron ore mine in January 2019 and at the Hpakant jade mine in July this year. The former killed 270 people near Brumadinho in Brazil, and the latter killed at least 160 people in Kachin State, Myanmar.
This May, Rio Tinto destroyed sacred Aboriginal sites in Western Australia’s Juukan Gorge. Yes, four months later the company’s CEO, Jean-Sébastien Jacques, and two other senior executives resigned, but this was too little, too late. To make any difference to public opinion, Mr. Jacques, plus a whole swathe of senior managers and most of the board, should have gone before the dust had settled from the explosion.
Why did subordinates not question the decision? Have directors stopped testing executive strategies? And where was the outcry for sackings from our institutions that have a duty of care to the global mining industry?
Notwithstanding these calamities, most individuals and companies continue to do what is expected of them, and often surpass it, but at the industry level, we are simply hopeless. Our national and international associations have the right aspirations (witness the release in August of the first-ever Global Standard on Tailings Management) but they have neither the bark nor bite to make a difference.
Crucially, our industry’s leaders are far too involved at the corporate level to address the bigger picture. These executives have left mining in need of a miracle. It would be timely as Friday, Dec. 4 is the feast day of Saint Barbara, who is the patron saint of artillerymen, military engineers and miners. Our patron saint is taken seriously in Europe, and many tunnel-construction sites in mainland Europe still observe the feast day.
Saint Barbara was an early Christian martyr, with accounts placing her in third century Nicomedia, in present-day Turkey, or in Heliopolis, present-day Lebanon. However, there is no reference to her in early Christian writings, and, because of doubts about the authenticity of her legend, she was removed from the general Roman calendar in the 1969 revision, although not from the Catholic Church’s list of saints.
According to legend, Barbara was the beautiful daughter of a rich pagan named Dioscorus, who kept her locked in a tower to preserve her from the outside world. Having secretly become a Christian, she escaped. The legends diverge at this point, although the most persuasive, at least for mining engineers, is that she hid in a silver mine. Unfortunately, Barbara was beheaded by her father when she emerged.
Dioscorus was promptly struck dead by lightning, and this association with lightning has caused Saint Barbara to be invoked against fire and explosions. Less obviously, she is also the patron saint of mathematicians and the Italian navy.
I suspect that mining needs Saint Barbara rather more at the moment than mathematicians and the Italian navy. It is 54 years since Aberfan, and dam failures are still killing people. Enough already, enough.
— Dr. Chris Hinde is a mining engineer and the director of Pick and Pen Ltd., a U.K.-based consulting firm he set up in 2018 specializing in mining industry trends. He previously worked for S&P Global Market Intelligence’s Metals and Mining division.