On 5 August 2020, the Global Tailings Review launched its new Global Industry Standards of Tailings Management (GISTM). These standards are aimed at preventing tailings disasters such as the Brumadinho collapse of January 2019, but in our eyes and the eyes of many of our friends and allies, they do not do enough to protect mining-affected communities. In the days leading up to the publication of the GISTM, we wrote the following expressing our concerns.
Mining giant BHP currently faces one of the largest group claims in UK legal history over the failure of one of its Tailings dams in Brazil. Meanwhile, the Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management (1) is due to set new guidelines on safely storing mining waste. It’s time to insist on an independent, international organisation to hold mining companies to safety standards. Recent history shows us they won’t do it themselves.
Tailings dams are dangerous because of the risk of collapse which can release large amounts of mining wastes with significant force. The 1985 Stava failure in Italy which killed 289 people in two villages, had doubled velocity when it destroyed the second village. These often gigantic constructions, ranking among some of the largest engineered structures on Earth, are used for long-term storage of mass wastes, from metal ores, coal, fertilisers, and tar sands mining. They can contain tens of millions of cubic metres of toxic byproducts. There are a variety of ways they can be constructed, but all carry the risk of collapse, which can release large amounts of mining waste with significant force. In just five years between 2014 and 2019, three such catastrophic collapses occurred. The impacts of these have been serious, and the risk of collapse much greater than had been assumed. By the time of the third of these disasters, in 2019, it was clear that internal pressures in mining companies led them to prioritise output over safety and that national governments’ regulatory systems are weak. The resulting cost of these combined factors was extreme.
At around noon on 25 January 2019 Dam 1 of Vale’s Córrego do Feijão iron ore mine in Brazil gave way. 12 million cubic metres of mining waste spilled out in a huge mudflow. It struck the mine workers’ cafeteria during lunchtime before advancing through houses, farms and down roads. The Paraopeba river was flooded with toxic sludge, contaminating a major water supply. 270 people lost their lives. The nearby town of Brumadinho was devastated (2). Something had to be done to prevent such a disaster occurring again.
And so it was. After a data gathering exercise carried out by the Church of England and Swedish state pension funds (3), and talks with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) started an experts panel to produce a tailings dam management set of guidelines or standard. This later became the Global Tailings Review, headed by independent chair Dr Bruno Oberle. Now, the Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management is to be released on 5 August 2020. In 2016, the ICCM produced tailings guidance that called only for defined chains of assurance within mining companies. Without proper monitoring and enforcement, these new standards risk being little more than mining industry propaganda. Only an independent, international regulatory organisation can ensure such monitoring and enforcement.
It would be untrue to say that mining companies haven’t been given the chance to show they can police themselves to prevent disaster in the past. The sad fact is that what happened at Brumadinho was predictable, preventable and had happened before. In 2014, the Mount Polley gold-copper mine in British Columbia, Canada spilled 10 million cubic metres of process water and 4.5 million cubic metres of tailings slurry. The result swept trees, rocks and mud into local waterways and created what was dubbed at the time the worst environmental disaster in Canadian history (4). In the wake of this, a set of safety guidelines were drawn up by an independent panel (5). They were recognised internationally, including by UNEP and the industry supported Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (6). But then, these guidelines were quietly pushed to one side and never adopted by the mining industry. Just one year later, the costs of mining companies not effectively managing their waste in a transparent way according to rigorous standards were felt again. On 5 November 2015, the Fundão tailings dam in the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil collapsed. An estimated 32 million cubic metres of mining waste from the Samarco mine (jointly owned by Vale and the British Australian mining giant BHP) spilled out, carrying mining deposits into the Rio Doce river system and out to the Atlantic Ocean, some 600km away. The spill represented 61% of the total waste held by the dam – an unusually high proportion in relation to tailings dam failure statistics (7).
It is this case that has recently seen BHP, the world’s largest mining company, facing the possibility of a £5 billion lawsuit in the UK courts (8). 200,000 Brazilian citizens are asking British judges for the right to sue the company over its failure to prevent the dam collapse. Whether the case goes ahead or not, two key lessons of Mount Polley, Samarco and Brumadinho must be examined. Firstly, that tailings spills are neither particularly rare events nor are they insignificant, unavoidable consequences of mining. If three major events within five years, fatalities in the hundreds and untold ecological damage doesn’t drive this point home enough, recent independent research has shown an upward trend in catastrophic mine failures since 1990 and suggests that the danger posed by tailings dams is higher now than it has ever been, with the chance of more frequent and more severe collapses growing (9). The second key lesson is that, when given a clear example of what to avoid, a set of independent guidelines and the option to enforce them or not, the mining industry chooses not to. It would be naive at best to think that the Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management will be treated any differently unless there is an independent means to enforce them. The lure of increased production and higher profits is always likely to lead to pushing infrastructure beyond what it can handle, to postponing costly repairs until it’s too late and to prioritising short term gain over long or medium term risk. Only an organisation that is unconnected to, and not dependent on the rising fortunes of the mining industry can be trusted to ensure that proper standards are kept and to enforce consequences when they are not.
In order to be able to properly and uniformly apply this enforcement, such a body also needs to be international in scope. If left to national or state actors, there can be little hope of achieving accountability across the global industry, let alone liability. In the various nations around the world where mines are in operation, there are vastly differing levels of ability and willingness to take international mining corporations to task. As the recent Voices from the Ground report demonstrated, many governments are willing to make “deep concessions” to the mining industry that frequently involve the relaxation of pre-existing safety and environmental restrictions (10). In countries such as Australia, Brazil, Indonesia, Peru and Canada, the extractivists have been given further incentives to expand their operations and output whilst having regulations slashed. We cannot expect state actors to suddenly switch tactics and start enforcing new safety measures when many have proven that they do not respect those already in place. Again, only an independent and international organisation that is dedicated to ensuring compliance will be appropriate for ensuring that standards are kept and that failure to do so has serious consequences for mining companies.
When the Global Tailings Review made a draft of its standards available for comment at the beginning of this year, international environmental, solidarity and human rights groups voiced a number of concerns. Among numerous issues, there had been no statement on ‘lessons learned’ from the collapse of the tailings dams in Brazil, no clarity on whether the standards pre-existing dams, and most critically no commitment to establishing a “credible, transparent, and independent international agency capable to ensure safe tailings worldwide” (11). Unless this key aspect is addressed, it may not matter how comprehensive and rigorous the suggestions of the Global Tailings Review are – even the best standards remain useless if they are not implemented, or remain unenforceable.
7 Morgenstern et al 2016 “Fundão Tailings Dam Review Panel Report on the Immediate
Causes of the Failure of the Fundão Dam”