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Global standard on waste dams released in response to multiple mining disasters

In response to multiple high-fatality mining sector accidents, a highly anticipated global standard on managing tailings was released Aug. 5 with the ambition of future dams causing "zero harm to people and the environment with zero tolerance for human fatality."

Tailings dams are engineered, earthen structures for containing mining waste and are located around the world. The Global Tailings Review standard project is an effort of the United Nations Environment Programme, Principles for Responsible Investment and the International Council on Mining and Metals. The 21-page standard covers the lifecycle of tailings facilities from site selection to eventual closure.

The new standard was prompted by the January 2019 dam collapse that occurred at Vale SA's Corrego do Feijao iron ore mine in Brumadinho, Brazil, killing 270 people.

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An internal investigation confirmed the dam owners were aware of safety concerns ahead of the collapse but took only "limited and unsuccessful" steps to remediate the dam and improve safety. Multiple people, including former Vale CEO Fabio Schvartsman, were charged with homicide over the breach. Vale has since announced multiple reparative and preventative measures in response to the disaster.

"The catastrophic dam collapse at Vale's Córrego de Feijão mine in Brumadinho was a human and environmental tragedy that demanded decisive and appropriate action to enhance the safety and strengthen the governance of tailings facilities across the globe," Bruno Oberle, chair of Global Tailings Review, said in a news release about the standard.

The Feijao disaster followed the November 2015 tailings dam collapse at Samarco, an iron ore joint venture between Vale and BHP Group, which resulted in the death of 19 people.

A 2019 survey conducted by investors led by the Church of England Pensions Board and the Swedish AP Funds Council of Ethics found that 166 of 1,635 tailing dams have reported stability issues at some point in their history, although the severity of the concerns was not apparent.

Under the ESG microscope

The development of a standard has been a focus of global mining conferences and other industry gatherings. Companies increasingly under investors' microscopes on environmental, social and governance issues have seen concerns about tailings dams swell in the wake of highly fatal disasters that risk mining companies' social license to operate.

"Tailings management is serious business, and getting it wrong has serious consequences for our industry and the communities that support us," Patrick Corser, a tailings and water discipline leader with engineering and consulting firm Stantec Inc., said at the MineXchange 2020 Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration's annual conference in February. Executives and other industry representatives dedicated much of that global mining industry event to sessions addressing concerns around tailings dams.

Still, an April report from the Responsible Mining Foundation deemed the industry's response on tailings dams weak, noting for example that few mine sites could show evidence that they informed local communities about what to do in the event of a tailings dam emergency.

Getting tailings dams to meet the new standard could prove costly. Mosaic Co. executives noted on a Feb. 20 earnings call that new tailings dam regulations in Brazil cost the company $80 million and significant downtime at three of its Brazilian facilities.

The U.N. environment program will be supporting governments to turn the standard into national and local policies. Principles for Responsible Investment, which represents US$103.4 trillion in assets under management, plans to encourage investors to support mining companies implementing the standard. The International Council on Mining and Metals, which represents an estimated one-third of the global mining industry, will make the standard a part of companies' commitment to its membership.

International Council on Mining and Metals CEO Tom Butler said in the news release about the standard that all facilities designated as having "extreme" or "very high" potential consequences — greater than 100 possible deaths and between 10 and 100 potential deaths, respectively — will be required to conform to the new standard three years from Aug. 5. Other facilities have five years to comply.

The standard covers six primary areas: affected communities; integrated knowledge base; design, construction, operation and monitoring of tailings facilities; management and governance; emergency response and long-term recovery; and public disclosure and access to information. Within the topic areas are 15 principles and 77 auditable requirements that operators are expected to follow.

The creators of the standard intend it to apply to existing and future tailings facilities.

The standard's authors identified some shortcomings in terms of preventing future disasters. That includes regulators around the world needing to do more work to identify, maintain and restore abandoned facilities.