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'Permanent state of fear': 2 years after disaster, mine tailings dams a big risk

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'Permanent state of fear': 2 years after disaster, mine tailings dams a big risk

SNL Image

An aerial view of a mud-hit area near the town of Brumadinho in the state of Minas Gerais in Brazil on Jan. 26, 2019, one day after the collapse of a tailings dam at Vale's Corrego do Feijao iron ore mine.
Source: Pedro Vilela/Getty Images News via Getty Images


On Jan. 25, 2019, a large dam full of mining waste from the Corrego do Feijao
iron ore mine owned by Vale SA ruptured and sent a mudslide downstream toward Brumadinho, Brazil, killing at least 270 people. Two years later, some question if the mining industry has done enough to avert further disasters.

Vale has faced billions in costs due to the incident, and several employees and contractors were charged with homicide, including former Vale CEO Fabio Schvartsman. While new standards have been introduced, many people still fear other tailings dams could fail, putting communities around the world at risk.

Maria Teresa Corujo is with Janeiro Marrom, or Brown January, a campaign working to raise awareness about the disaster. Corujo described training drills with sirens in Brazilian communities near tailings dams, so that community members could rehearse running in case of another failure.

"These are in areas that are so close that there is no time to run to escape," Corujo said in an interview, through a Portuguese interpreter. "As a result, the communities, the populations that live close to tailings dams, they live in a permanent state of fear."

Several other tailings dam disasters preceded Brumadinho, including one at the Samarco iron ore mine in Mariana, Brazil, that killed 19 people in 2015. The Samarco Mineração SA operating company is a 50/50 joint venture between Vale and BHP Group. There are an average three tailings dams failures per year, according to a review published by the scientific journal Advances in Civil Engineering in 2019.

The Responsible Mining Foundation revealed in its biennial 2020 report that most mining companies could not demonstrate effective procedures to manage and report tailings dam risks. Few mine sites showed evidence of regularly informing communities about what to do in case of a tailings dam incident.

Industry urged to do more after receiving new tailings standards

In response to Brumadinho and similar disasters, a group of mining industry stakeholders released the 21-page Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management in August 2020.

The standard is a "significant step toward the safer management of tailings facilities," said Tom Butler, CEO of the International Council on Mining and Metals, or ICMM. Butler said the ICMM, which is led by the CEOs of 27 metals and mining companies, represents about one-third of the mining industry. ICMM helped develop the standard and includes it as a membership commitment.

Butler told S&P Global Market Intelligence that there is no hard evidence of improvements yet because companies are still working on implementing the standard and upgrading current practices.

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Activist group Earthworks has called for several protections beyond the global standard, including a ban on new facilities immediately upstream from inhabited areas. The group has also called for a ban on tailings dams built using the upstream construction method, and for the closure of existing upstream dams.

"Communities still feel threats from tailings dams," said Jan Morrill, an international mining campaigner with Earthworks. "There's still a lot of work that needs to be done."

Morrill said there needs to be more corporate accountability for tailings dams, including public liability insurance to cover potential failures. Communities should also have more of a say when such projects are built in their area, she said.

Pierre De Pasquale, head of stakeholder engagement at the Responsible Mining Foundation, said the foundation's recommendations on the standard include increasing high-level corporate accountability, protecting World Heritage Sites and specifying that tailings storage facilities are located away from communities and worker facilities.

"Regulators too must ensure that high standards are implemented and that companies do not externalize their post-closure legacy management and costs to taxpayers and future generations," De Pasquale added.

Butler said the Brumadinho disaster rightly raised questions about the mining industry's ability to operate tailings dams safely. However, he believes the standard will "help boost public confidence" in tailings management and sets a high bar for mining companies.

"So, rather than focus on additional areas to strengthen a very robust standard, our focus needs to be on uptake and implementation," Butler said.

SNL Image

Relatives of victims of the Brumadinho disaster mourning on Jan. 25, 2020, during the one-year anniversary of the failure of the tailings dam.
Source: Pedro Vilela/Getty Images News via Getty Images


Vale says 'safety has become an obsession'

Looking back at the Brumadinho disaster, many have wondered if Vale could have averted the crisis. In September 2020, investigating officials said Vale had repeatedly failed to deliver on promises to improve safety and that 29 of the company's dams still presented an elevated risk.

Remote sensing data might have flagged concerns at the dam above Brumadinho "several weeks or even months in advance of the failure," according to a study published Jan. 7 by the Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences journal. An internal probe released by Vale in early 2020 found that concerns about the dam's fragile condition had been raised in multiple audits since 2003.

Vale is making progress in improving its governance, risk management policies and tailings management while supporting the reparation of Brumadinho, according to a company statement. The company is also trying to depend less on tailings dams by using other technologies to deal with mining waste.

"Safety has become an obsession, and we believe that the integration of [environmental, social and governance principles] in our routine will be essential for Vale's de-risking," the company said in the statement.

Vale said its tailings facilities deemed to have "extreme" or "very high" potential consequences will meet the new standards by August 2023. All facilities that have not been closed safely by August 2025 will conform to the new guidelines.

Vale has paid $2 billion Brazilian reais in civil and labor indemnities since Brumadinho, it said in a Jan. 18 news release. The company also documented numerous community and social programs implemented since the disaster. Vale estimated 25% of the 9 million cubic meters of leaked tailings have been relocated, with the work to be completed by the end of 2025.

In the release, Vale said it expects to reach indemnity agreements with the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais in early 2021. However, Reuters recently reported the collapse of settlement talks due to disagreement over the amount of compensation. State authorities decreased demands to 40 billion reais from 54 billion reais, while Vale offered 29 billion reais.

Corujo, with the Janeiro Marrom campaign, said many community members she talks to near Brumadinho have already lost their way of life and continue to struggle to work with the company. She said people are afraid to speak up for fear that "if they speak their truth, their relatives will lose their jobs and Vale will not negotiate any kind of compensation."

"There is an entire population that is ill, sad and muzzled because they are silenced," Corujo said.

As of Jan. 22, US$1 was equivalent to 5.46 Brazilian reais.