Investor intervention for tailings dam safety

31 March 2020

Investors are taking the initiative with efforts to review global progress addressing tailings dam safety in the wake of last year’s Brumadinho disaster in Brazil.

Nine months after the Brumadinho tailings dam disaster in Brazil that killed 270 people, investors from the Mining and Tailings Safety Initiative met in London on 31 October 2019 with senior executives of mining companies and leading experts to review international progress on mining and tailings safety.

The Investor Mining and Tailings Safety Initiative has over USD$13.5 trillion in assets under management and is co-led by the Church of England Pensions Board and the Council of Ethics of the Swedish National Pension Funds. Set up in April 2019 in the aftermath of the Brumadinho disaster, it convenes institutional investors active in extractive industries including major asset owners and asset managers.  Inputs into the investor process have been sought from communities impacted by the recent disaster, and from leading international experts, government representatives, international technical advisors, as well as company representatives. 

Aftermath of the Brumadinho tailings dam failure in Brazil. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons 

Calls for intervention

This has led to a number of investor-led interventions. The first was a call for a new independent and publicly accessible international standard for tailings dams based upon the consequences of failure. At the London summit investors were updated on the progress of a global review which is being led by former Swiss Environment Minister Professor Bruno Oberle, and co-convened by the International Council of Mining and Metals (ICMM), the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The second intervention requested detailed disclosure on tailings storage facilities. Starting on 5 April 2019, a letter was sent to Board Chairs and CEOs of extractive companies seeking greater disclosure on the management of their tailings storage facilities.

The request for information was made to 727 companies and, after confirmation that they had tailings dams, they were asked to provide answers to 20 questions on each individual facility. Professor Elaine Baker of GRID-Arendal and the University of Sydney gave the first independent academic assessment of the disclosures at the London meeting.  Her analysis revealed that: 

  • As of 8th November 2019, 39 of the top 50 mining companies have made disclosures which have resulted in information about thousands of individual tailings dams/facilities being made public on company websites. 
  • Over 73% of the mining industry by market capitalisation have responded, and all 22 of 22 publicly owned companies that are members of the ICMM responded and fully disclosed tailings dams/facilities. 
  • Of the 727 companies contacted 43% responded, with 137 confirming that they did have tailings facilities.  
  • Thirty-nine companies had not yet published their disclosure on a website or asked for extra time to complete their disclosure. 
  • 54.5% of the industry by market capitalisation fully and publicly disclosed.

John Howchin, Secretary General of the Council on Ethics of the Swedish National Pension Funds and Co-Lead of the Mining and Tailings Safety Initiative, said: “Even with these disclosures we still do not have the full picture. Whilst many of the major mining companies have responded to our request, just over half are yet to disclose to us. Investors will be re-doubling our efforts and allocating lead engagers to those companies and using the stewardship tools available to us to secure these disclosures. There is simply no excuse to not disclose on a material risk, that as owners of these companies, we need to urgently understand. It is clear,” he added, “that investors’ patience with non-disclosing companies will not remain for much longer.”

In its third intervention, the Mining and Tailings Safety Initiative will use the disclosures to form a global database on tailings which will be a publicly available portal for the first anniversary of the Brumadinho disaster. 

The United Nations Environment Programme, non-profit academic foundation GRID Arendal and technology company Satellite Applications Catapul, are also supporting the database. Commenting on the partnership, Ligia Noronha, Director of Economy Division at UNEP, said: "Information and disclosures are key to trust, assurance and confidence in the mineral resources sector.  UNEP looks forward to a continued engagement with the investor/finance community to strengthen responsible mining "

“This is the first time that those outside of the mining industry have had access to a range of information on many of the world’s largest tailings dams - including where they are located, construction method, current storage volume, risk characterisation and history of stability reporting,” says Professor Elaine Baker. “It is essential that investors and wider society understand the risks associated with these structures and where there have been issues related to their stability. As a result of the intervention by investors, the database we have under construction will support an informed dialogue with mining companies and governments about how to address the ongoing risks around tailings dams.”

Paraopeba River polluted after the collapse of Brumadinho tailings dam in Brazil in January 2019.


Tailings dams are amongst some of the largest engineered structures in the world which can have catastrophic consequences if they collapse.  Following the investors disclosure request it appears that 10% of tailings dams have had some level of issue related to the stability of the dam.

Adam Matthews, Director of Ethics for the Church of England Pensions Board and Co-Chair of the Mining and Tailings Safety Initiative, said: “Whilst assurances have been given that these issues have been addressed, this underscores why investors, banks and insurers will be continuing to work together on this issue until such time we have confidence in a new global standard being implemented, and that the highest risk dams have been identified and operate to this standard or are removed.  

“We note that many companies already operate to a very high standard as evidenced by some of the disclosures,” he said, “but this is not universal across the sector and dams are continuing to fail, putting lives and the environment at risk.”

Matthews went on to add that these disclosures “bring a new level of transparency to the mining sector that will enable reappraisal of risk in portfolios.

“It is clear there has been insufficient attention paid by the investment community and tailings have in effect been treated as an externality,” he continued. “These disclosures begin to change that understanding. We now know who has a facility, where it is, and we are beginning to understand the risks associated with individual dams. Through the work of the Investor Mining and Tailings Safety Initiative we expect to drive the highest standards of safety within company tailings management. These disclosures are the first steps towards that goal.”

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