Vigil in Brumadinho (Andrew Hickman/LMN)

In June 2020, LMN supported a report by US-based organisation Earthworks and MiningWatch Canada, Safety First – Guidelines for Responsible Mine Tailings Management. This was a response to industry recommendations about mine tailings management. The process by which those recommendations were made is analysed in a book, Credibility Crisis – Brumadinho and the Politics of Mining Industry Reform . One of the Safety First report’s authors, Dr Steven Emerman, has now written a review of this book.

Book Review by Dr. Steven H. Emerman, Malach Consulting

The simple story goes like this: On January 25, 2019, a tailings dam failed near Brumadinho, Brazil, killing 270 people, the majority of whom were mineworkers. In response, the International Council on Mining & Metals (ICMM), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) co-convened a seven-person independent expert panel to write the Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management (called “the Standard” in this book review). The process was called the Global Tailings Review (GTR) and included an advisory group that acted as a sounding board for the expert panel. The Standard was released with great fanfare on August 5, 2020, followed by the dissolution of the GTR. On May 6, 2021, ICMM released the Tailings Management Good Practice Guide and Conformance Protocols for the Global Industry Standard, respectively providing guidance on how to implement the Standard and how to audit against the Standard.

The deeper story goes like this: Two out of the seven members of the expert panel, Dr. Andrew Hopkins and Dr. Deanna Kemp, have written a book that is highly critical of the Standard that they helped to write and of the process by which it was written. The 176-page book is called Credibility Crisis – Brumadinho and the Politics of Mining Industry Reform and was published in 2021 by Wolters Kluwer. Dr. Kemp is an academic sociologist and Director of the Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining at the University of Queensland. Dr. Hopkins is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Australian National University. He is a specialist in industrial safety and has participated in numerous industrial accident investigations, such as the BP Texas City Refinery disaster of 2005 and the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill of 2010. Dr. Hopkins has written 13 other books with titles, such as Failure to Learn, Disastrous Decisions, and Nightmare Pipeline Failures.

What went wrong? Something must have gone wrong if the authors of a widely-acclaimed global standard cannot publicly defend the standard. Can the Standard be analyzed as its own kind of “accident,” so that we can learn from the accident and avoid repeating the accident in the future? The answers to these questions should be of great interest to the members of USSD, all of whom are devoted to dam safety, and especially to those members of USSD who are involved in writing guidance documents of various kinds.

Hopkins and Kemp acknowledge that another tailings guidance document was being written at the same time as the Standard and they fault the co-convenors for never engaging with the authors of the other document. According to Hopkins and Kemp, “In June 2020, an alliance of almost 150 civil society groups released an alternative set of guidelines called ‘Safety First: Guidelines for Responsible Mine Tailings Management’ … As far as we know, there has been no formal response by the co-convenors, or engagement with the groups that produced this guidance … Civil society groups were a vital part of the consultation processes that occurred during the development of the Standard. It would appear that they are now to be side-lined.”

The critiques of the content of the Standard by Hopkins and Kemp include the following:

lack of a ban on the upstream construction method
lack of a ban on riverine or deep-sea tailings disposal
a consequence-classification method that does not recognize the expected loss of a single life as an extreme event that should require dam construction to the highest standards
limited consideration of the chronic impacts of chronic tailings dam failure (such as blowing of radioactive dust)
limited consideration of financial assurance for tailings dam closure and financial insurance to cover catastrophic dam failure
limited consideration of the rights of project-affected people

In the case of upstream construction, Hopkins and Kemp recognize Safety First as a superior document and quote “The use of upstream construction must be banned in favor of centerline and downstream dams, which are much less vulnerable to all mechanisms of dam failure.” Hopkins and Kemp also quote from an article defending the use of upstream construction, “Of the 10 rules, a ‘score’ of 9/10 will not necessarily have a better outcome than 2/10, as any omission creates immediate candidacy for an upstream tailings dam to join the list of facilities that have failed due to ignoring some or all of the rules” (emphasis added by Hopkins and Kemp). Hopkins and Kemp respond, “This is a slightly obscure statement that may need to be read twice to reveal its true meaning. We can only agree with Earthworks and Mining Watch Canada [publishers of Safety First] when they say: ‘There is a broad consensus within the engineering community that engineering structures should be robust, with multiple back-ups and defense mechanisms. The need to obey ten rules with no margin for error does not constitute a safe basis for design.’”

Then how did the Standard go wrong? There are four threads that run throughout the book. The first is that the expert panel did not literally write the Standard, they only produced a draft for consideration by the co-convenors. According to Hopkins and Kemp, “The chair’s view at this stage was that expert panel members were ‘facilitators, not holders of interest’ … But for panel members selected for their expertise, this was an uncomfortable position to find themselves in. The panel subsequently produced its final draft, reflecting the discussion, which was sent to the co-convenors to agree on a final version. The expert panel was not present for this ultimate negotiation between the co-convenors and had no part in the final shaping of the Standard.” In fact, the final draft by the expert panel was submitted to the co-convenors on March 10, 2020, five months before the release of the Standard.

The second thread is that the three co-convenors were not equal partners and the ICMM dominated over the other two. It is noteworthy that ICMM paid all expenses (millions of dollars) and that all contracts were signed with ICMM. The first major power play by ICMM was its insistence on censorship of the initial draft before it was released for public consultation in November 2019. Hopkins and Kemp recount the events, “As a matter of courtesy, the chair of the panel provided advance copies to the co-convenors. The ICMM distributed this draft to the CEOs of its 27 member companies for comment and received very strong objections to some of the provisions in the draft. As a result, the ICMM ‘red-lined’ these provisions, insisting they be changed before the ICMM CEOs would agree that the draft be sent out for consultation … To keep the process moving, the chair [of the expert panel] conceded to the demands of the CEOs … The PRI took the view that it was not sufficiently knowledgeable about the issues to debate the details … There had been no need for intervention by the ICMM CEOs at this stage … Moreover, as a result of this intervention, the public was denied access to the considered views of the expert panel on certain matters … The advisory group was made privy to ICMM’s intervention and the resultant changes to the draft, and many of its members were horrified. They regarded this as undue interference and saw it as undermining the independence of the process … The expert panel was outraged at this procedural breach … Nonetheless, the panel was left to defend a consultation draft that had been weakened and now contained technical inaccuracies. This placed the panel in an awkward position during the public consultation process.”

“The members of USSD are strongly urged to read this book in its entirety, consider the full context of each of the selected quotes, consider the alternative narrative of ICMM, and draw their own conclusions.

The third thread is that PRI and UNEP never retained the level of technical expertise that was readily available to ICMM. As Hopkins and Kemp explain, “Industry had a detailed understanding of how tailings dams were constructed, while the other 2 groups did not. This meant that industry could simply argue that certain proposals were unrealistic and would make mining prohibitively expensive … This very one-sided access to relevant knowledge placed industry in a powerful position. Investor groups and UNEP might have been able to exercise greater influence if they had been advised by geotechnical engineers and other tailings specialists with deep industry experience … This meant that throughout most of the process, the chief negotiators for UNEP and PRI were unable to comment on much of the detail. They were therefore unable to act as advocates for various requirements that the expert panel proposed but to which industry objected.”

By contrast, ICMM CEOs consistently pushed back on expansion of the rights of project-affected peoples, apparently in ignorance of agreements that their own companies had already signed. In some frustration, Hopkins and Kemp recount, “The ICMM CEOs explicitly wound back requirements for operators to listen to project-affected peoples … Part of the reason for this intransigence was that the ICMM CEOs and their technical advisors were largely unaware of the details of various international instruments that their companies had endorsed, and of the implications these instruments had for dealing with affected communities on project-related matters. The ICMM member companies employ specialists in social and environmental performance who would have been able to educate CEOs and their technical advisors about issues such as participation, human rights and consent. Yet the CEOs failed to draw these specialists into the GTR process in a formal way. The expert panel sought the formal engagement of these specialists, just as the industry’s tailings specialists had been engaged. This never eventuated. It was almost as if the company social and environmental specialists had been banned from formal participation. The result was that the panel had to undertake the task of educating parts of the ICMM member companies about their own commitments in relation to social performance …”

The fourth and most important thread is that ICMM was the only participant in the GTR process that had a fallback option in the event of collapse of the GTR process. The guidance documents for implementation and auditing of the Standard that were released on May 6, 2021, were already in progress in some form even before the beginning of the GTR. According to Hopkins and Kemp, “Well before our process had begun, the ICMM had already convened a working group of tailings experts from among its member companies to develop an ‘international guide for tailings management.’ One of the stated aims of this guide was to ‘provide comprehensive guidance on principles and practices for tailings management.’ This was precisely the task of the expert panel, and it seemed to the panel at best redundant and at worst an attempt to influence it in ways that were not open to the other two co-convenors at that time … A second and more limited objective of the group was to support ‘implementation of the international Standard for tailings management,’ which the expert panel was to develop … Clearly, the view of the ICMM was that the Standard should be adjusted to bring it into line with the ICMM guide. At an early stage in the process, the expert panel met with representatives of this ICMM group to try to understand this confused and contradictory situation, but the meeting failed to achieve any clarity.”

The second fallback option was explained by Hopkins and Kemp, “The ICMM argued again and again that its positions were the only realistic ones and that any attempt to set higher standards would mean that companies would refuse to sign up to the Standard. More often than not, this argument for ‘realism’ won the day.” In other words, for the ICMM member companies, doing nothing, that is, refusing to comply with the Standard, was another option. By contrast, UNEP and PRI had no comparable fallback options. In the words of Hopkins and Kemp, “Neither the PRI nor the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) had a clear idea of what they wanted the Standard to contain.”

As a consequence of their fallback options, the ICMM was quite vocal in their willingness to veto the Standard if it did not meet the interests of its member companies. As summarized by Hopkins and Kemp, “The ICMM consistently argued that its views should take precedence over those of the other two [PRI and UNEP], and it backed this up throughout the development of the Standard with an implied threat that it would bring the process to a halt if its fundamental interests were disregarded.” As discussed above, the consultation draft was “red-lined” by the ICMM before it was released to the public. Even the written response by ICMM to their own red-lined version contained “a clear threat of veto” (in the words of Hopkins and Kemp) in writing “Our view is that there are some very substantive core issues to be addressed before the ICMM will be able to endorse the final Standard.” Hopkins and Kemp continue, “In subsequent discussions within the panel, there was talk of the need to avoid provoking the ICMM, where possible, and pressure was put on some panel members to relinquish certain positions they had espoused … Others felt that the panel needed to be ‘realistic,’ that is, to produce a document there was some chance industry would accept … [The chair of the expert panel] was an advocate for the ‘realistic’ approach … He stressed that the panel was involved in a political process in which it was better to achieve something, rather than nothing.”

The members of USSD are strongly urged to read this book in its entirety, consider the full context of each of the selected quotes, consider the alternative narrative of ICMM, and draw their own conclusions.


Dr. Steven H. Emerman is the Chair of the Body of Knowledge Subcommittee of the USSD Education and Training Committee. He is the owner of Malach Consulting and one of the authors of Safety First: Guidelines for Responsible Mine Tailings Management.

This article first appeared in US Dams and Levees Bulletin.