Disciplinary Notice: Stephen Rice

Posted on August 10, 2021

Engineers and Geoscientists BC issued a Notice of Inquiry on September 13, 2018 (amended April 18, 2020) to Stephen Rice, a former engineer, containing multiple allegations of unprofessional conduct and breaches of the Bylaws and Code of Ethics in relation to the engineering services Mr. Rice provided in connection with the Mount Polley Tailings Storage Facility (the “TSF”) prior to its breach on August 4, 2014.

A public discipline hearing concerning Mr. Rice proceeded in front of a panel of the Discipline Committee of Engineers and Geoscientists BC (the “Panel”) on June 15 and 18, 2020 by way of a virtual hearing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Panel was comprised of three senior professional engineers.

Mr. Rice retired in 2017 and resigned as a registrant of Engineers and Geoscientists BC in January 2018. Engineers and Geoscientists BC retains jurisdiction over former registrants for the purposes of discipline (paras 2, 28, 48).

By correspondence sent June 3, 2020, Mr. Rice advised the Panel that he would not contest the allegations (but would not admit that the allegations are true) in reliance on the fact that Engineers and Geoscientists BC was not alleging that Mr. Rice’s conduct caused or contributed to the breach of the Mount Polley Tailings Storage Facility on August 4, 2014 (para 6).

At the hearing, Engineers and Geoscientists BC presented the Panel with an Agreed Statement of Facts signed by Mr. Rice. Engineers and Geoscientists BC also presented two expert reports, extracts from an investigative interview of Mr. Rice and voluminous documentary evidence. Mr. Rice did not challenge or oppose any of the evidence or introduce any additional evidence (para 7). No oral testimony was given (para 13).

The Panel found the Agreed Statement of Facts and all the allegations to be proven (paras 8, 21).

By way of background, the Panel found that in 2011, AMEC Americas Limited, which later became AMEC Foster Wheeler (“AMEC”), assumed engineering responsibility for the TSF. After the departure of the senior engineer and Engineer of Record (the “EOR”) at AMEC for the TSF at the end of 2012, Mr. Rice acted as the review engineer on further AMEC reports on the TSF in 2013. In 2013 and 2014 Mr. Rice was the most senior AMEC engineer on the Mount Polley project (paras 26–28) and accordingly was in a position to select which engineer was appointed as the EOR (para 88). On or shortly before April 11, 2013, Laura Fidel, P.Eng., of AMEC was designated the Project Manager and EOR for the TSF. Mr. Rice remained the review engineer (para 32).

The Panel found that Ms. Fidel was a junior engineer relative to the complexity of the Mount Polley TSF, had little experience with embankment design, and had never previously acted as the EOR on a project (para 88).

Following an August 2013 site visit by Ms. Fidel, no AMEC engineer, other than engineers in training, visited the site prior to the breach in August 2014 (para 36). When Ms. Fidel departed on leave in February 2014, no other individual within AMEC was designated to take over as EOR (para 34).

The purpose of the Rice discipline case was not to assess the cause of the breach of the TSF but to consider the allegations in Notice of Inquiry issued to Mr. Rice concerning his engineering services (paras 39–40). The cause of the breach was separately addressed in reports of the Mount Polley Independent Expert Engineering Investigation and Review Panel and the Chief Inspector of Mines.

The Panel considered the complexities and the inherent risks of the dam noting that AMEC had identified the presence of Glaciolacustrine foundation soils when it first conducted a review in 2006 (paras 41–46). Overall, the Panel found the TSF to be “complex and high-risk requiring an engineer with extensive experience to act as EOR (para 80).”

All allegations set out in the Notice of Inquiry were proven. The Panel found that Mr. Rice engaged in unprofessional conduct as follows:

  1. from January 2013 to February 2014, when, as the most senior engineer at AMEC working on the TSF, Mr. Rice allowed Ms. Fidel, a relatively junior engineer with little experience with embankment design, who had never previously acted as the EOR on a project, to act as the EOR for the TSF (paras 65–94)
  2. (a) having allowed an engineer with insufficient experience and experience to act as the EOR for the TSF, Mr. Rice failed to ensure that a geotechnical engineer with appropriate experience and knowledge of the design of the embankments visited the site on a regular basis to observe the TSF for potential indicators of safety or stability issues (paras 95–100). The Panel noted, “…the rate of inspections by an appropriately qualified engineer was thoroughly inadequate (para 99).”
  1. (b) Mr. Rice failed to ensure that he or the EOR warned Mount Polley Mining Corporation that its field inspectors were not appropriately experienced or trained (paras 101–113)
  2. Mr. Rice accepted professional responsibility as the review engineer for the Stage 9 Design of the TSF embankments in circumstances where he was not qualified by training or experience to adequately fulfill that role (paras 114–131)
  3. (a-c) Mr. Rice failed to properly fulfill the role of a review engineer (paras 132–142), including by conducting a superficial review of the Stage 9 embankment design. The Panel wrote:
    • The role of the review engineer epitomizes an engineer’s professional duty to provide expertise to the client and to safeguard public health and safety and the environment. Mr. Rice failed to perform any meaningful review, when this important role was precisely that which he undertook (para 142).
  1. (d) Mr. Rice failed to question the Stage 9 perimeter embankment design slope of 1.3H:1V which was unusually steep for rockfill tailings embankments of the kind at Mount Polley (paras 143–152). The Panel noted:
    • The steepness of the slope and proposed height of the dam clearly ought to have precipitated an in-depth review… Mr. Rice’s failure to identify and address the implications of the steep slope is a marked departure from the expected standards of a professional engineer. The circumstances posed a serious risk, calling for an in-depth review. The failure to do so departed from every engineer’s fundamental ethical and professional obligation to protect public safety… (paras 151–152).
  1. Mr. Rice failed to take appropriate steps after Ms. Fidel’s departure from AMEC on a leave, (paras 163–177). The Panel noted:
    • As the senior engineer on a project of the size and complexity of Mount Polley and with a significant environmental risk, it was up to Mr. Rice to ensure that suitable arrangements were in place. Instead, he did not appoint an EOR and did not fulfill the role himself. He did not perform the necessary oversight of the water management issue (para 177).
  2. from March 2014 to August 2014, when he became aware of an excavation at the toe of the perimeter embankment of the TSF that had remained unfilled for a number of months, Mr. Rice did not take steps to have an appropriately qualified geotechnical engineer assess the excavation and determine whether the excavation should be filled as soon as possible (paras 178–184).

The panel also found that contrary to Bylaw 14(b)(2) in effect at the time, Mr. Rice failed to document his review of the Stage 9 Design and stability analysis (paras 153–162). No evidence was presented to the Panel that any records of the review were retained (para 162).

On January 27, 2021, Engineers and Geoscientists BC presented the Panel with written submissions on penalty and costs. Mr. Rice agreed with the proposed penalty and costs. On April 1, 2021, the Panel issued its Decision on Penalty and Costs. The Panel summarized its findings and noted that, “Mr. Rice failed to fulfill standards that are fundamental ethical obligations of members of the profession” (para 21). The Panel also noted that, “These findings place this case on the serious end of the scale of unprofessional conduct, warranting a significant penalty (para 22).”

The Panel ordered that Mr. Rice be suspended for two years (should he ever successfully re-apply for registration). Further, should he ever successfully re-apply for registration, he must complete and pass the Professional Practice Examination, be subject to peer review and undergo a Practice Review. He was ordered to pay the then maximum fine of $25,000 and costs in the amount of $107,500.

The full text of the Decision can be found in the Disciplinary Notices section of our website, at egbc.ca/Discipline-Notices.

Engineers and Geoscientists BC’s website contains information on the complaint, investigation, and discipline processes. You can contact us at 604.558.6647 or toll-free at 1.888.430.8035 ext. 6647, or by email at [email protected].

View the latest issue of Engineers and Geoscientists BC's official magazine, as well as archived editions.

For advertising in Innovation, please contact Monique Nguyen, Advertising In Print, at [email protected] or 604.428.3218.

View our career listings or place an employment ad.