“Mine waste storage facilities are like ticking time bombs, putting communities and waterways in harm’s way in the event of catastrophic failure,” says Payal Sampa from the non-profit organisation Earthworks. “Even after the Mount Polley and Samarco disasters, which should have served as urgent wake-up calls, governments and companies have done far too little to prevent future disasters. Mining trade associations have tried to create the impression for regulators and investors that mining waste containment failure has been addressed, when that is far from accurate.”

Sampa was giving reaction to the release of a new report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The joint assessment with the UN’s environment collaborating centre GRID-Arendal, is called Mining Tailings Storage: Safety is No Accident, and urges mining companies to put safety first.

UNEP says it was prompted into action by the human and environmental costs of continued tailings dam disasters, and wants to examine and explain why existing engineering and technical knowhow is insufficient to prevent tailings dam failures from occurring.

As Ligia Noronha, Director of the Economy Division at UNEP, explains: “The mining industry has acknowledged that preventing catastrophic tailings dam incidents with zero fatalities and environmental protection is fundamental and achievable. For decades, companies, industry bodies and regulators have been continually improving best practice guidelines for the construction and management of tailings dams. However,” Noronha states, “eliminating all catastrophic incidents remains a challenge.”

Continuing to fail

Since 2014 there have been eight tailings dam failures, in countries such as Canada, Mexico, Brazil, China, US and Israel, which have been of significant enough scale to make global news. Although for many years the total number of incidents has declined, the number of serious failures has increased. While there is no publicly accessible inventory of tailings dams, the global volume of stored tailings is also unknown.

UNEP acknowledges that ICOLD’s 2001 report called Tailings Dams: Risks and Occurrences was comprehensive and “established an urgent need for the reform of tailings storage facility planning, management and regulation”. ICOLD found that of the 221 failures it examined – all were found to be avoidable. An inadequate commitment to safe storage, combined with poor management, was the cause of most failures.

Disappointingly, UNEP says in its new report, despite efforts by ICOLD and others to develop many new measures, guidelines and improved practices, tailings storage facilities still continue to fail.

“Furthermore, the issue of safely storing tailings may become even more challenging,” UNEP warns, “as the volume of waste from mines increases due to lower ore grades and as climate change brings about more intense and variable weather events.”

Ultimately an inadequate response will see failures continue. The consequences and impacts of this will continue to be felt by communities, human rights and the environment.  It will also impact upon the reputation and profitability of mining ventures.

Willing to disinvest

Indeed, only days after the release of the UNEP report on tailings dams, the Church of England ‘s National Investing Bodies issued a press release announcing the launch of a new policy on investments in extractive industries. The strategy is described as being shaped by key ethical concerns, which are not found in extraction itself, but in business conduct including the management of risk, the effects of operation on communities and national economies, and operating standards.

The policy raises concerns around ownership structures such as joint ventures, and highlights unease about different corporate reporting and operating standards. It also stresses the need for much greater focus by company boards on the risks around tailings dams, and questions the frequency and seriousness of dam failings.

Furthermore, the Ethical Investment Advisory Group recommends: “That closer attention is paid to tailings dams and the impact and risks of large scale infrastructure. In particular, the group recommends that the National Investment Bodies consider forms of assurance and protection, such as 'tailings safety bonds' or 'legacy bonds', since tailings dams appear to fail with some regularity, causing significant loss to life, communities and the environment. These instruments may also help focus company board's minds on this important responsibility.”

Alan Fletcher, Chairman of the Church of England Pensions Board Investment Committee, said: "We will engage with companies on the key ethical concerns highlighted in this policy. We believe that extractive companies have an important role to play in society, but that they have a clear ethical responsibility in the way they act on issues such as human rights. We engage robustly and where companies are unresponsive we will be willing to disinvest."

Safety first

The UN’s Rapid Response Assessment of tailings dam makes two recommendations and identifies actions to improve regulation and practice. It has highlighted issues that are considered to be “serious enough to warrant more detailed consideration and action by regulators, financiers, owners and operators of mines”.

Recommendation 1:
The approach to tailings storage facilities must place safety first by making environmental and human safety a priority in management actions and on-the-ground operations. Regulators, industry and communities should adopt a shared zero-failure objective to tailings storage facilities where ‘safety attributes should be evaluated separately from economic considerations, and cost should not be the determining factor’ (Mount Polley expert panel, 2015, p. 125)”

Recommendation 2:
Establish a UN Environment stakeholder forum to facilitate international strengthening of tailings dam regulation.

Further actions identified looking at:

  • Facilitating international cooperation on mining regulation and the safe storage of mine tailings through a knowledge hub.
  • Preventing failure – including measures such as the enforcement of financial and criminal sanctions for non-compliance with mining regulations; and avoiding dam construction methods known to be high risk.
  • Crisis response – establishing a global financial assurance system for mine sites to ensure rehabilitation, tailings management and monitoring; and a global insurance pool for any unmet liabilities from major failures on local communities.

The Rapid Response Assessment acknowledges that mining is a complex industry but in order to improve the safety of tailings storage facilities it requires a change of focus: “Industry and regulators need to adopt more holistic thinking, which is flexible enough to allow for site variation, but which also clearly identifies best practices. Most importantly, these best practices need to be competently implemented. But as noted by the Mount Polley expert panel (IEEIRP 2015), existing best practices and regulations may not be enough to eliminate failures – what is also required is a fundamental change in the way we produce, reuse and perpetually store tailings.”

Richard Harkinson from London Mining Network believes that the UNEP assessment and its recommendations “pose a serious challenge to mining companies to improve the rigour of their management of tailings facilities”. While Ugo Lapointe from MiningWatch Canada describes the assessment as being timely, much needed, and a wake-up call for all states involved in regulating the mining industry.

“Catastrophic mining waste failures are on the rise worldwide and on all continents. These environmental disasters indiscriminately hit developed and developing countries alike, and clearly appear to be driven by financial factors, not technical ones. Safety,” Lapointe stressed, “must come before cost.”

The full report Mine Tailings Storage: Safety is No Accident by UNEP and GRID-Arendal (2017) can be downloaded at https://www.grida.no/publications/383