The former Mount Polley tailings dam (
by Steve Timmer
Jul 21, 2015, 12:00 PM

Hubris and blandishments

It hasn’t been much in the news around here, but in more sentient parts of the world, notice has been made of the fact that the United States’ monument to the Cold War — the Runit Dome, or the Tomb, to the locals — is leaking radiation after having built a mere 35 years ago. Swell. This is a mausoleum of human hubris, built on Bikini Atoll, and according to the UK Guardian article:

Below the 18-inch concrete cap rests the United States’ cold war legacy to this remote corner of the Pacific Ocean: 111,000 cubic yards of radioactive debris left behind after 12 years of nuclear tests.

Brackish water pools around the edge of the dome, where sections of concrete have started to crack away. Underground, radioactive waste has already started to leach out of the crater: according to a 2013 report by the US Department of Energy, soil around the dome is already more contaminated than its contents.

But who could have imagined this might happen?

Certainly not the apple-cheeked civil engineer Pollyannas who built this laugher. But with any luck, they’ll all be dead before they really have to face the music. You see, that’s the way some of these grand civil engineering projects work. Fingerprints don’t matter, because hey, all the perps are dead anyway!

The figurative descendents of the designers of the Tomb are around, though, and they work for PolyMet. Well, not directly; they’re actually paid by you and me, the taxpayers. Which is just extra frosting, right?

Many of you will remember that about a year ago, a sulfide mining tailings dam failed in British Columbia, causing probably the biggest environmental disaster in Canadian history. But just in case you’ve forgotten, here’s a little reminder from

You might be dismayed to learn that the same Panglossian crew that designed the faulty drain plug at Mount Polley is advising regulators in Minnesota about PolyMet’s plans to rehab an already leaking taconite tailings dam for use in PolyMet’s proposed sulfide mine. These engineers are working hard at walking away from it now, of course.

Mount Polley? It isn’t our problem anymore:

Knight Piésold describes itself as the “former engineer of record of the tailings storage facility at Mount Polley,” and said that it informed Imperial that it would no longer continue in that role as of February 2011. Knight Piésold commented that during the time it acted as engineer of record, the tailings storage facility at Mount Polley “operated safely and as it was designed,” and was subjected to multiple third-party reviews.

The firm said that since Feb. 10, 2011, it “has not had any responsibility or knowledge of any aspects of the design, modifications or performance monitoring of the tailings storage facility at Mount Polley. The original engineering done by Knight Piésold Ltd. accommodated a significantly lower water volume than the tailings storage facility reportedly held at the time of the breach. Significant engineering and design changes were made subsequent to our involvement, such that the tailings storage facility can no longer be considered a Knight Piésold Ltd. design.”

It actually operated safely until the moment it didn’t.

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