The former Mount Polley tailings dam (
by Steve Timmer
Jan 30, 2019, 7:00 PM

Oh for the evangelical certainty of an engineer!

Every once in a while, someone will submit a letter to the editor or an op-ed piece that really gets under my skin.

There have been three enormous mining tailings dam disasters in the last handful of years, in Brazil and Canada, and now in Brazil again. And just like clockwork, the claque of mining apologists appear with their kazoos and pom poms telling us not to worry. Here’s Dennis Martenson’s letter in the Strib’s paper editon today. (I reprint it in its entirety, but go give the Strib a click for publishing it.)

I cannot let two Jan. 29 letters to the editor (“Mining safety: Bad news from Brazil”) pass without providing comment as a concerned citizen. It should also be noted that I am not, and have not been, involved directly in the engineering work for either of the proposed mining operations and that my knowledge is based on what we do as engineers and my review of news articles. I am also not trained as a geotechnical engineer nor work as such but have been associated with many geotechnical engineers during my career.

I would advise that neither Gov. Tim Walz nor the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources make a decision based on the tragic events in Brazil, for multiple reasons. First, while the second tailings dam that failed was owned by the same mining company as the one that failed a year or two ago (also in Brazil), the one that previously failed was not an engineered tailings dam. Second, the one that failed in the past week also may not have been an engineered tailings dam. Third, to make a conclusion based on a collapsed tailings dam in another country without any further information on the failure is not responsible and certainly not in the public interest.

The state of Minnesota, and the companies proposing the two mining operations closest to receiving all required permits, have been in the process of planning for 10-plus years. In my opinion, this is not only a very long period of time for any activity requiring permits from the state of Minnesota, but it also should provide more than ample oversight to provide assurances that these mining operations not only will be an asset to the state, but that their operations will not provide risks greater than the potential benefits — to the state, the public and the companies. As humans. we undertake many activities that have risk; however, the risks involved with these proposed mining operations have been identified and analyzed and mitigation has been proposed to provide the greatest benefits with risks commensurate with the potential benefits.

As for the tailings dams that failed in Brazil, the public should know that the state of Minnesota has some of the best-trained geotechnical engineers, geologists, etc. Many of them have been trained by some of the most respected and knowledgeable geotechnical minds. These are the many faculty (past and current) who have provided such training at the University of Minnesota, College of Science and Engineering, Department of Civil, Environmental and Geoengineering. In addition, engineers and scientists from other parts of the world have also been involved in the planning and development of the proposed copper and nickel (and other minerals available in lesser amounts) mining operations proposed for northern Minnesota.

Dennis R. Martenson, Medina

It’s a 460 word bit of cheerleading, much longer than letters accepted from the rest of us ordinary mortals.

Shorter Dennis: I’m an engineer, and engineers have looked at these proposed mining operations, so what’s the problem? Martenson’s letter is one of the better recent examples I have seen of the hubris of engineers, one of the most hubris-filled professions extant. (And I include physicians.) You’d think that there are enough websites reciting the most gruesome engineering disasters in history to make Dennis and his pals a little more circumspect, but you’d be wrong.

One of the more charming points made in Martenson’s letter is that the project “has involved” engineers from all of the world. Yes, that is true, including a company that has been advisory to the Land and Minerals Division of the Minnesota DNR, Knight Piésold.

Remember the tailings dam failure in Canada I mentioned at the beginning of the story? It turns out that Knight Piésold is the same merry band that designed the tailings dam that failed at Mount Polley in British Columbia in 2014, polluting the most prolific sockeye salmon river on the planet. Not kidding.

But these are the kind of people the supine Land and Minerals Division of the Minnesota DNR love.

The same firm that literally engineered the failure at Mt. Polley also designed the “Tomb.” From a story here entitled 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!

These are Dennis Martinson’s peeps. These are some of his other peeps, the mining people at TKDA, where according to the internet, Martinson spent some time (at TKDA, that is).

It is regrettable that the Strib was uninformed or chose to ignore Martinson’s pedigree.

It comes down to who are you going to believe? Martinson or your lying eyes?

Just as a sidelight, Martinson is the kind of witness that lawyers love to depose: often uninformed but never uncertain.

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