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Lessons from disaster — Mining's journey to a safer future

11 August 2022
By Rohitesh Dhawan, CEO, and Aidan Davy, COO, ICMM

In January 2019, a dam retaining mine waste failed, releasing 9 million cubic metres of tailings killing 270 people in the town of Brumadinho, Brazil.

I wish this tragedy was a one-off. But it isn’t.  

In November 2015, a tailings dam at the Samarco mine in Brazil collapsed, killing 19 people. And in August 2014 a tailings spill in Canada caused major environmental damage. Other tailings facilities around the world have had issues over the years and the impact on lives and the environment can be catastrophic.

Clearly, tailings management must remain front of mind for the industry.  

Historically, whenever a failure has happened, the rest of the industry express disbelief and hoped it would not happen at their mine, with the protective measures they have in place, and with their systems and people. But time and again we see that it can. And unless we take collective action, it will.   

At Brumadinho, they are still searching for the bodies of four people. The rescue services are determined to not stop until they are found.  

On a recent visit, the sense of collective loss in the local community was palpable.

This tragic incident was a catalyst for action, not just at Vale which has undergone internal structural and cultural changes and massive reparation works in conjunction with the community, but also by the industry as a whole. After Brumadinho, ICMM together with UNEP and PRI convened the Global Tailings Review, which established the Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management (the Standard).

The Standard is an important milestone towards the ambition of zero harm to people and the environment from tailings facilities.  

The Standard is two years old this month and it is already making a difference. It strengthens requirements for accountability and independent oversight. It enhances transparency and disclosure. Most importantly, it puts communities at the centre of safe tailings management.  

Looking ahead, ICMM member companies will fully conform with the Standard for tailings facilities classified as ‘Extreme’ or ‘Very High’ consequences by August 2023 – a major milestone for facilities with the highest consequence of failure. For all other facilities, members have an additional two years to conform.

As ICMM, we are also working together towards innovations that significantly reduce and repurpose mine waste to minimise the requirement for tailings storage facilities in the future.

The Standard has made tailings dams a focus for the entire global industry rather than just a few companies. This has put responsible management of tailings on the agenda of executives and boards in a way that rarely happened before.

This is having an impact. As of January 2022, 79 companies (including ICMM’s 26 members) have committed to implementing the Standard.

ICMM alongside UNEP and PRI continue to advocate for broad-based uptake and implementation of the Standard. Although the Standard is voluntary, there are consequences for ignoring it.

For example, the Church of England Pension Board, managing about £4 billion in assets, has said it will vote against the Chairs of companies that have not committed to implement the Standard.

On the other hand, companies that can credibly demonstrate comprehensive management of tailings are more likely to attract favourable terms for insurance and may benefit from lower costs of capital.

It should not have taken a tragic event to catalyse change. But we are heartened by the early impacts of the Standard and continue to encourage its adoption beyond the ICMM membership.