Tailings Dams Management – A Change Long Overdue

With the recent tragedies that have been inflicted on communities, stakeholders and mine operators due to mine tailings facilities failures, the mining industry faces a reset button focusing on processes currently applicable to tailings governance.

This calls out for all stakeholders involved to collaborate and strategize on practical methodologies to effectively and efficiently manage tailings facilities.

The global tailings review, a collaborative initiative convened by the International Council on Mining and Metals, ICMM; UN Environment Programme and the Principles for Responsible Investment, PRI, forms a critical spine driving the review of the current practices and formulating a base case for industry best practice, that can be adopted by all involved stakeholders in an effort to mitigate against any future tragedies such as experienced in the recent past years.

Reading through the initial draft of the global tailings standard, which is organised around six topical areas, 17 principles and 77 specific requirements, it strikes me to know that it has taken this much time, damage and loss to come to a global guide on how we should be managing tailings outside other guidelines that have been extensively applied in the mining industry such as, Mining Association of Canada (MAC), Guide to the Management of Tailings Facilities, 2019 and Australian National Committee on Large Dams (ANCOLD), Guidelines on Tailings Dam Design, Construction and Operation, 2012.

Rico et al., 2007, explain a number of singular characteristics that make tailings dams more vulnerable than other types of retention structures namely, embankment  formed by locally collected fill material, dams subsequently raised as solid material coupled with a severe increase in effluent (tails material), lack of regulations on specific design criteria, lack of dam stability requirements requiring continuous monitoring and control during emplacement, construction and operation and high cost of maintenance works for tailings dams after closure.

It is worthwhile to note that the global tailings review addresses, in my perspective, what has been lacking through the years and what Rico et al. highlighted in the tailings dam failures review paper.

In my opinion, the main causal factor to tailings dams’ vulnerability is due to, lack of “binding” regulations on specific design criteria. The new proposed framework to manage tailings will address this shortfall and ensure that mine tailings facilities are aligned to a similar standard.

One other plausible thing incorporated in the global tailings review draft is principle 10; establish roles, functions and accountabilities and remuneration systems to support the integrity of tailings facility, under management and governance topic.

This principle will elevate the accountability for tailings facilities that would result in “very high” or “extreme” consequences in the event of a failure, to the upper level of the organization’s hierarchy i.e. board and senior management, allowing right appropriately qualified people to be represented at such level to lead and drive effective and efficient management of tailings facilities.

A strong emphasis on an “integrated approach” is also key, as it allows collaboration between mine operators, technical specialists, stakeholders and technologies.

Overall, a turn in the practices involving governance of tailings facilities, should bring back confidence in tailings management, this compounded by transparency between mining operators and the public sector, to access information on tailings facilities, will ensure that there is a global understanding on the operation of the facilities.

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