The management of waste tailing dams has faced the same issues for more than a decade, and is reading for a global tailings standard – and nothing sums that up better than a statement from the Canadian Dam Safety Guideline (2007), which stated, “legal regulations take precedence over guidelines produced by non-governmental organisations”.

More than a decade down the line, nothing resonates more with the recent state of affairs in tailings management. In fact, the same issues regarding a standardised global regulatory framework for management of mine waste tailings dams are still plaguing the industry.

Lately, however, there has been some momentum towards realisation of such a framework through the advocacy of a global tailings review, espoused by a collaborative initiative convened by the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) – the latter being a group formed after the mining tragedy that occurred in Brazil in 2015, due to a mine’s tailings storage facility failure.

According to PRI, “a global tailings standard has been endorsed by the co-convenors, and now working on publishing a standard which will establish much needed robust requirements for the safer management of both existing and new tailings facilities globally”.

Does the industry need a standard?

So far, all signs are pointing to a standardised approach being embraced by stakeholders, communities, and operators at large. While adopting the new standard will require time and expense, most operators will still welcome it, and could easily absorb the standard into respective corporate risk management frameworks and governance strategies.

Keith Mandisodza, principle geotechnical engineer at Australian mining firm Cartledge Mining and Geotechnics, shared his thoughts on the matter.

“No matter what, without the standard being regulated across operations, its effectiveness and functionality will not be fully felt,” he says emphatically. It must be standardised, rather than being viewed as a guideline, which some operators can opt not to adhere to. Regulating the standard will ensure that it takes precedence over any other guidelines and hence its intended application.”

Mandisodza says that the application of available guidelines, from different organisations like Australian National Commission on Large Dams (ANCOLD), Canadian Dam Association (CDA) and Mining Association of Canada (MAC) forms the basis for some of the mine tailings storage facility’s design, operation, management, and surveillance guidelines.

Consistency is key

However, multiple applications of these guidelines stems from not having some fully encompassing guidelines, on certain issues, leading the mining operations to come up with “composite” guidelines to be fool-proof on risk aversion and management or in cases, to be over-conservative in their tailings governance and management strategies considering that the subject has been topical lately.

According to Mandisodza, the Cartledge tailings team is bracing up for the new standard and already assisting clients in the overall implementation of the standard as well as helping to transition the standard into clients’ corporate governance structures.

“Our experiences with different clients have exposed us to the diverse guidelines they have adopted,” he explains, “basically to cover and protect against any major tailings incidents or failures occurring, which can be damaging to companies, stakeholders and communities, as has been experienced globally, with some of the major failures that have been recorded.

“All being said and done, the formulation of a global standard is likely to introduce a stricter corporate responsibility and more consideration in the operation and management of tailings storage facilities, which subsequently can mitigate the recent trends and events that have been associated with mine tailings facilities.”