On 25 January 2019, a tailings storage facility at Vale’s Córrego de Feijão mine in Brumadinho, Brazil collapsed leading to the deaths of 270 people. Questions were rightly raised from all quarters about the mining industry’s ability to manage tailings facilities safely to protect workers, local communities and the environment, writes ICMM CEO Tom Butler.
This was a pivotal moment for the sector and one that demanded decisive and appropriate action. The solution required our industry to unite, work collaboratively and develop a tangible offering to strengthen the safety of tailings facilities to prevent future failures, and improve transparency and disclosure.
The International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) - which is led by the CEOs of 27 mining and metals companies - committed to a robust response; an independent, multi-stakeholder approach that would draw on the global expertise of a diverse team and consult a wide range of stakeholders. ICMM partnered with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) and, under the guidance of Chair Bruno Oberle and individuals from our expert panel and advisory group, worked tirelessly to deliver this approach.
Last week, together with Dr Oberle and leaders from our co-convenors, we published the result of that commitment – a Standard that sets a new, global benchmark to achieve strong social, environmental and technical outcomes in tailings management, with a strong emphasis on accountability and disclosure.
The Standard is ambitious, and sets a high bar. Indeed, a paper by White & Case LLP assessed its principles against 9 mining jurisdictions around the world and found that in many cases the Standard sets a higher threshold in terms of its comprehensiveness.
Reaching this milestone has taken a huge amount of effort on all sides. Multi-stakeholder processes are never straightforward, and this was no exception, given the wide range of views from communities, civil society, industry, and investors that needed to be taken into consideration. However, I believe that this multi-stakeholder approach has made the final product more impactful.
Now, ICMM members’ immediate priority is ensuring its full implementation. The Standard will be integrated into our existing membership commitments, which includes third-party assurance and validation. Members have committed that all facilities with ‘Extreme’ or ‘Very high’ potential consequences will be in conformance with the Standard within three years from today, and all other sites within five years.
To support implementation of the Standard, ICMM is developing guidance – focused on fostering a safety culture for the management of tailing facilities. We are taking into account the improved engineering practices for tailings management, including use of a performance based, risk informed approach advocated by Dr Norbert Morgenstern, a world-leading expert in the field, who is actively supporting us in the development of this guidance. Once the guidance is ready, it will be publicly available on our website for the benefit of the wider industry.
Practically, members’ commitment to the Standard will apply to the approximately 1,200 tailings dams operated by ICMM members globally. Through effective implementation of the Standard, our members – who represent around a third of the global industry – will help to set the bar for all mining companies to work together to make tailings facilities safer.
At the launch event last week, we heard from Angelica Amanda Andrade who lost her sister in the Brumadinho tragedy. Her message was a salutary reminder of how important it is that we do not allow history to repeat itself.
Getting to this point has not been easy and there will undoubtedly be challenges ahead. The Standard is not a silver bullet, but all those involved can be extremely proud of what has been achieved. But now that this vital step has been completed, we must focus on broad uptake and effective implementation of the Standard to ensure safer management of tailings storage facilities everywhere.
Tom Butler is Chief Executive Officer at the International Council on Mining and Metals.