It is now eighteen months since the disastrous collapse of the Vale tailings dam at Brumadinho. This has led to much soul-searching both by mining organisations and civil society on the way ahead. Not everyone is happy with progress made on the lessons learnt.

Significant players in civil society have been the Church of England Pensions Board and The Council on Ethics of the Swedish National Pension Funds. Within a few days of the disaster they, with the UN Environment Programme, convened the Investor Mining and Tailings Safety Initiative and then they asked the 727 publicly listed mining companies to disclose details of their tailings storage facilities.

In October 2019, they convened a global tailings summit to review the progress by the industry since the disaster, and the Global Tailing Review was formed with both industry and civil society contributors. With GRID-Arendal (a non-profit environmental communications centre in Norway) and others, they produced the Global Tailings Portal with access to a database of tailings sites. A useful summary of tailings dam issues is given in their October 2019 report. Also useful and very readable is this Reuters report.

The report from the Global Tailings Review has been delayed from January, partly because of the Covid-19 crisis. But on 25 June, it was said “we expect to publish … in the coming weeks”. It has been endorsed by the sponsors including the original convenors.

Not everyone is entirely happy with the current position. On 29 June ‘Safety First’ was published by EarthWorks and MiningWatch Canada. The 142 endorsers of the ‘Safety First’ report include the London Mining Network, Peru’s Cooperacción and Grufides, and Oxfam America. This report says that the draft standard “do[es] not go far enough to adequately protect communities and ecosystems from failures” and that there are insufficient mandatory guidelines. Further, it notes that the current trends of increasing mine waste caused by decline in ore grades are not sustainable.

More specifically:

  • It insists that board of directors must be held accountable and must demonstrate that the company could cover the costs of both closure and post-closure plans as well as public liability insurance.
  • It lists various best practices to be adopted including the banning of upstream dams and of facilities above centres of population; better control of leaching and acid mine drainage; consent by local communities; better planning for 10,000 year flood or earthquake events; better monitoring systems.
  • There must be some independent international agency, perhaps analogous to the International Civil Aviation Organization, gathering and sharing relevant information on storage sites and ultimately overseeing tailings management safety worldwide. The standards must be updated regularly, including lessons learnt from past failures.