12 July 1970

Dear Dave

re Aberfan. How easy it is to be wise and righteous after the event. I'm sure that the coalminers of Aberfan knew, even without benefit of the post–mortem technical studies, that they were living in a hazardous situation, and accepted it rather than risk having the mine closed down. lt is not unlike San Francisco today where millions risk involvement in disaster, or Rabaul where everyone knows they are living in the crater of an active volcano. They consider present benefits to be worth the risk. It is certain S.F will have another major earthquake and Rabaul another eruption – the only uncertainties are when and how big. I can imagine the condemnation which will be heaped on the unfortunate officials who have the bad luck to be in positions of “responsibiity” at the time.

I was most interested to note on para 278 that “there is not the slightest cause for anxiety (re the remaining tip complex) at the present time“. I’ll bet, from looking at the photos, that he touched wood when he said that. Also, in 219 that the Tribunal couldn’t bring themselves to recommending removal of the tips, because of the high cost, and were prepared to settle for lesser treatment that would ensure “complete safety“. I don't believe the “complete ” but no doubt the odds are better than they were.

The point I’m trying to make is that we, the public, are prepared to take all sorts of risks all the time, on the principle that it is not going to happen to us, and these risks are often taken quite knowingly, often in ignorance. It seems unfair that individuals become the scapegoats when the gamble fails. Do you think it fair that the engineering profession allows 8 engineers to be arraigned re Vaiont? even after all the post mortem analyses it was surely a freak and no one could have proved there was a significant risk. (Incidentally what is your forecast for Torrens Gorge?) There must be hundreds of large dams in deep gorges where no one can truly make any worthwhile estimate of the risk of a Vaiont type slide.

However I do agree completely with the recommendations. I must find out what BHP does about its tips!

Best regards and good luck,


P.S. It would be interesting to know how many forecasts of failure have been ignored and been proved by events, to be wrong.