Tough new safety standards for tailings dams, including the appointment of a qualified and experienced engineer to check their safety, have been proposed by a group representing the world’s biggest miners as they seek to avoid any further disasters.
The six-week consultation on the standards aims to prevent another disaster happening like the one in Brazil in January where a tailings dam at Vale’s Brumadinho mine burst, releasing a destructive tidal wave of mud that killed over 250 people.
Tailings dams store waste material from mining and their safety has been a defining issue for the industry this year.
The consultation draft released on Friday proposes a range of measures covering six topics to tighten the safety of tailings facilities. These include building storage dams to stricter benchmarks, linking employee pay to the integrity of the dams and holding safety reviews by independent parties.
“The draft standard is one part of a wider global drive to strengthen performance on tailings management,” said Bruno Oberle, who chaired the review. Other initiatives include the creation of a global database of tailings facilities.
The consultation paper was convened by a UN environmental body, the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM), an industry body, and UN-backed Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI), while the research was led by a panel of independent experts.
The final standard for tailing dams will be published next year after feedback. Tom Butler, chief executive of the mining trade body, said “there is still much work to do in order for ICMM to endorse the final standard.”
The requirements for operators to bolster the safety of tailing dams cover six areas: improving their knowledge, engaging with local people, reviewing design practices, enhancing management and governance, preparing emergency responses and publicly disclosing information.
It proposes that board members and senior management should be accountable for tailing dams that could cause ‘very high’ or ‘extreme’ consequences in the case of a failure.
Vale’s chief executive Fabio Schvartsman stood down after its dam collapsed but he was criticised for spending too much time courting investors rather than focusing on its operations.
The consultation document says that “only states have a mandate to carry out oversight and enforcement,” suggesting that no supranational body for enforcement would be created and penalties for non-compliance will be left in the hands of individual states.
Some of the mining majors have already publicly released their own stringent standards but say implementation and assurance of stakeholders needs improving. There is also a wider challenge of getting smaller miners that do not belong to the ICMM to sign up to the standards.
The disaster in Brazil was the second major accident involving tailings dams within almost four years and has made some investors wary of owning mining shares and raised uncertainty among insurance companies. It is estimated there are about 3,500 active tailings dams globally and a recent review estimated one in ten have stability issues.
The draft noted investors have a role to play in limiting their financial support only to projects that fulfil the standards proposed and insurance companies should insist mining companies minimise the risk from tailings dams.
Adam Matthews from the Church of England Pensions Board representing PRI said “we are mindful that zero harm to people and environment has to be the objective and the standard has an important role to play to achieving a mining sector whose tailings facilities are operating to such a standard.”