The disasters that led to tailings reform

The board of the Global Tailings Review created the standards after the Brumadinho dam disaster killed at least 270 people in Brazil when a dam collapsed on 25 January 2019. A sudden mudslide hit the local town destroying the community  and changing the local landscape. Mine owner Vale has faced fines of $1.47bn, executive arrests, and a regulatory crackdown as a direct result of the collapse.

It later emerged that Vale had reason to doubt the integrity of the dam, but the company did not take action on the information. While an industry body had already published a tailings framework, the tailings disasters continued. Now, the new standards aim to stop catastrophes like this from happening again. 

To create the regulations, the UN Environment Programme collaborated with UN-backed investors network Principles for Responsible Investment and the International Council for Mining and Minerals (ICMM).

In an ICMM statement from the time, CEO Tom Butler said the new standards marked a ‘significant step’ toward greater tailings safety. He continued: “The standard will be integrated into ICMM’s existing member commitments, which includes third party assurance and validation, and we are in the process of developing supporting guidance.

“Members have committed that all facilities with ‘extreme’ or ‘very high’ potential consequences will be in conformance with the standard within three years of today, and all other facilities within five years.”

‘Ambitious’ reform timeline allows companies to prioritise

ICMM represents 27 of the largest mining companies, including several involved in previous tailings disasters. COO Aidan Davy told us that the timeline for enforcement was ‘ambitious’: “This reflects the importance of this issue to our members, and was set so that companies could prioritise the conformance of facilities with higher potential consequences.

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By GlobalData

“The amount of difficulty in implementing these standards partly comes from the maturity and robustness of companies’ existing practices for tailings management. Demonstrating conformance will involve a significant effort for most companies.

“The transparency associated with our disclosure requirements will make it clear if companies are not in conformance, and what they intend to do to address this.”

The standards’ disclosure requirements mandate public disclosure of tailings safety information. This would include easy-to-understand explanations of a dam’s design and placement, as well as an outline of the consequences of a collapse.

Davy said these policies would make it clear when companies do not conform, and ensure they show how they intend to fix issues.

Who will enforce global tailings standards?

ICMM has said it will incorporate the standards into its member commitments. This alone will cover most of the largest mining companies, with assurance from third-party auditors.

Davy said: “We are developing a conformance protocol that integrates the standard into our existing member commitments. This will be a working document, to be used by companies or suitably-qualified independent third parties to evaluate tailings facility conditions against the standard’s requirements. Once the material is ready, it will be publicly available on our website for the benefit of the wider industry.

“The standard itself includes numerous requirements for independent oversight as an integral part of how companies manage their tailings facilities. For example, external and independent third parties will oversee the analysis of sites for new tailings facilities, how tailings storage is classified based on the consequences of failure, and the conduct of risk assessments. The standard allows for flexibility in how its goals are achieved, which is particularly important given the varied geographical contexts.”

The string of disasters has also bought greater attention to tailings monitoring technology. For instance, companies have investigated big-data methods of monitoring dam safety and looked to link datasets from multiple risk management tools. These would operate above the Global Standard’s outline, for operators looking for better mining practices.

Best practice, and tailings issues to be settled at national level

The standards’ preamble clarifies that it does not cover all considerations. It reads: “Issues have arisen in the development of the standard that are difficult to translate into an auditable industry standard for operators.

“These issues are more appropriately addressed through national and/or state level regulatory authorities, or through multilateral agencies working with the industry.”

The preamble gives the example of finding the owners of ‘orphaned’ mines and dams, where the accountable party is unclear. Davy continued: “We all agreed that two other aspects were beyond the scope of the review: Detailed design criteria for tailings facilities, and the exclusion of certain technologies.  

“Our sense was that detailed technical design criteria for tailings dams are already covered by organisations such as the International Commission on Large Dams.

“From the outset, we agreed that the review would not look to exclude certain technologies such as upstream tailings facilities from future use. While individual governments may decide to make that choice, it would be inappropriate for the Review panel to do so.”

While it does not address all issues, Davy said he believes the standards improve the global benchmark for good tailings practice. This still leaves operators to design their own procedures in order to achieve best practice, but soon, this too will have worldwide guidance.

Davy continued: “ICMM is in the process of developing a Good Practice Guide for Tailings Management for members and the wider mining and metals industry, intended to support the implementation of good governance and engineering practices for tailings management across the lifecycle, including a performance-based, risk-informed approach where appropriate.”