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Career defining moments happen when you least expect them. For Robert Fetell, that moment occurred in his very first class on his very first day as a PhD student at MIT, when Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Andrew Whittle closed his class with a video of the 2019 Vale S.A. mine tailings dam collapse in Brumadinho, Brazil.
The video showed the slow-motion release of 11.7 square cubic meters of mine tailings, or waste, from the collapsed dam, which reached the Paraopeba River, five miles away. The rapid flow of muddy waste devastated the Brazilian region, killing 270 people and destroying farmland central to an agricultural economy.
That video ignited Fetell’s concern for the future of mining host communities and his interest in the life-saving value of early warning systems, which did not go off at the Vale dam.
“I began to realize the scale of the problem we are dealing with,” Fetell recounted. “Tailings dams are among the largest man-made structures on earth, and they will keep getting bigger as our global appetite for minerals continues to grow.”
“This places a lot of downstream communities in harm’s way, primarily in the Global South,” Fetell continued.” Recognizing the dire need for early warning systems, he set out to harness the power of satellites with his research.
Fetell is currently working on using publicly available remote sensing data to monitor the safety and stability of tailings dams, to catch risks and anomalies that would indicate impending failure. This would encourage communication between mining companies and communities.
“People have a right to know if they are in danger,” Fetell said. “The idea is to alert people that they need to evacuate in the same way we do when a hurricane is coming.”
And since Fetell originally came to MIT to study coastal resilience, he is familiar with hurricanes. His new focus on mine tailings — and the decision to join ESI as a research assistant for the Program on Mining and the Circular Economy — may seem like a major career pivot, but it’s actually quite consistent with his passion for resilience.
As a native of Miami Beach, Fetell has had firsthand experience with disasters from a young age. At six years old, he woke up to dead fish flopping on his lawn. It was a result of Hurricane Wilma, which caused Biscayne Bay to overtop a nearby seawall.
“Our neighborhood was blanketed in debris, which raised a lot of questions for me,” Fetell said. “How did the water get to where it was? Why were some houses untouched while others were unlivable? It was just a genuine interest in how things worked that shaped most of my thinking.”
Years later, this interest in natural processes and their impacts would lead him to earn both an MS in Engineering Geology and a BA in Geology from the University of Pennsylvania. A passionate believer that young people deserve a bigger voice in the way our communities adapt to climate change, he also founded the Resilience Youth Network (RYN): a 501(c)(3) that hosts speaker-networking events and runs an annual fellowship program for high school and early college students to develop the next generation of climate resilience leaders.
After all, a major theme of resilience is preparation. To Fetell, early warning systems are the perfect way to bridge environmental advocacy with his technical research.
Fetell credits Prof. Whittle for drawing an important connection for him: when it comes to responsibly managing mine waste, there is a strong connection between climate mitigation and adaptation. On the mitigation side,the transition to renewable energy is expected to consume more metals than ever and, thus, generate more tailings than ever. Then, with adaptation, there is the challenge of managing these tailings.
How should society balance the tradeoffs of both, in ways that enable the clean energy future while prioritizing human health and the environment?
“Many of the goals in the Inflation Reduction Act, Chips and Science Act, and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law would be unachievable without more mining,” Fetell said. “Mining is an essential part of our clean-energy journey, one that carries many social and environmental challenges. Engineers need to factor in both the technical and translational impacts of our work in order to make a meaningful difference.”
By using a unique combination of satellite interferometry and in-situ ground measurements, the technology Fetell is developing aims to provide downstream communities with early warning systems for dam failure. The technology would contribute to preserving the well-being of society and ecosystems, while also demonstrating that engineering can bolster public confidence in the mining industry’s commitment to safety and environmental stewardship. This, in turn, can lead to stronger regulations, better practices, and more responsible mining operations.
The ESI Program on Mining and the Circular Economy (MCE) works to develop solutions to mining challenges through research, education, events, and partnerships. Its primary goals are to:
“I’m really excited to work with ESI on initiatives to galvanize MIT grad students and undergrads around this rapidly growing and changing industry,” Fetell said. “There’s so much opportunity to make a difference.”
One of these initiatives is a student research and recruitment focused conference to be held in the spring of 2024, which Fetell will be organizing.
“I love my research – especially for the real-world impact it can have,” said Fetell. “I’m honored to join ESI because, on many levels, they are representative of the socio-environmental conscience of the university.”
For more information on ESI’s MCE program, email firstname.lastname@example.org.