Pressure on mining companies has been radically increasing in the last few months in regard to opencast mining. First, the failure of the Brumadinho tailings dam in January, with 300 deaths, brought to a head years of disquiet around the management of tailings. Second, as it became clearer that the quality of the ore in the upcoming large opencast mines was falling, so the ratio of tailings to ore output was rising and the issue of tailings became more and more important. Third, social protest has sharpened. Even in Chile, where extractives have been to some degree protected from protest by population scarcity in mining areas, social protest over other issues has spilled over into mining as well.

In March, as a result of the Brumadinho and earlier dam failings, the Global Tailings Review was initiated, backed by the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM), the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI). The review is now conducting a public consultation on the draft global standards to improve waste management. See also here.

Then in early November the Brazilian National Mineral Agency (ANM) released a report on the failure of the Brumadinho tailings dam. It exposed failings and negligence by Vale, its owner, and Vale’s contractors. Vale says that its own internal enquiry on the disaster is due this month.

It has thus become clear that the industry has got the message that it has to improve its practices, if only to improve its image with the public and gain credibility among investors, some of whom are withdrawing support. For example, Anglo American claims its standards exceed those specified by the ICMM and the regulations imposed by host states. It has outlined plans for new technology (such as use of satellites, optical fibre sensors etc) to monitor its dams. It also highlighted improved technology for reducing water and energy use.

New technology could improve the safety and environmental impact of mining. A shift from wet to dry tailings could enormously improve the stability of tailings sites, as well as reducing water and electricity usage and thereby some societal demands.

However, such improvement will be offset by the lower metal content in the ore of most new mines. This means that more material has to be processed to compensate, with the result that the issue of tailings becomes ever more serious.

Peru faces the challenge of strengthening rules for the design, construction and management of tailings dams as a condition for project approval. This raises the issue of the ability of institutions such as the OEFA to monitor compliance.

The country also faces the challenge of doing much more to clean up the estimated 8,000 abandoned mining operations (pasivos mineros), some dating back centuries. These are a permanent source of pollution of water sources in various regions. And whatever improvements in technology lie ahead, it remains the case that the years of mining have soured relations with those who have to live near mine sites, along access roads to them, or live close to processing facilities (like smelters) that form part of the mining industry.