Mine Tailings Storage: Safety Is No Accident

falls to government. If neither is able to provide compensation, then the environmental and social costs fall on those who live near the mine. A revised scheme could help address the risks to and vulnerability of affected communities, such as those downstream of the Marindique dam disaster, for whom no satisfactory or equitable compensation system exists. Similarly, the financial liability of long-term or perpetual management of legacy sites has concerned the industry for many years, with two significant reports from the ICMM on financial assurance and integrated closure planning (Miller 2005; ICMM 2006). Further work by Kempton (2010) outlines the diverse management issues and potential for hundreds of years of management for problems like acid mine drainage, or thousands of years for radioactive mine tailings. These are potential liabilities with a longevity greater than many of our financial institutions. If long-term management was adequately costed, the required financial assurance could help incentivize innovation in mine design and tailings management. Changes to financial assurance are required for both dam failures and long-term management. While management could be improved with more accurate project assessment and costings (see above) a compensatory mechanism is required to address failures. The oil industry compensation fund for accidents provides a model which could be applied to the mining industry. Regulators Regulations governing mining operations are specific to national and jurisdictional regulations and local circumstances. While their variation precludes an extensive review in this report, given that regulatory failures and inadequacies contribute to tailings dam failures (Golder and Associates 2016), an international regulatory systems review would be beneficial in improving tailings management.

Tailings Dam failures are a shared responsibility, caused as much by regulatory as management failure. In cases of catastrophic failures, the regulatory system has failed to ensure good design, and to implement, monitor and enforce adequate standards. As ICOLD determined, these failures are frequently human-caused. Regulatory systems with multiple, independent checks are required to ensure standards and detect impending failures. A regulatory system, for example, should cover the civil works, environmental performance and risk calculations associated with tailings storage facilities. They should also stipulate financial requirements for perpetual management of waste or a requirement for rehabilitation to a level that enables the site to be safely relinquished for reuse for non-mining purposes. While the practical requirements for mine waste planning, treatment, storage, monitoring and management are highly specific to the mine location, some higher-level issues are widely applicable. Figure 23 illustrates an evolution of tailings management, from proponent-driven to a gradual increase in regulations for a more inclusive approach that would reduce risk for all stakeholders. The issue of regulation remains a sensitive one for the industry. The recommendations in the 2001 ICOLD report concentrated on industry responses, such as increased professionalism, more studies and planning, skilled audits and better monitoring – the basic premise being that as poor management was the cause of most failures, better management would be the solution. The UN Environment view, expressed in the same report, more clearly addresses the need for effective regulation to improve waste management, stating “the major driving force in reducing the number of tailings dam incidents is … the adoption of regulations that require regular independent auditing…” (ICOLD 2001, p. 56). After the Samarco failure, the ICMM conducted a review of tailings management (Golder and Associates 2016) and issued a position statement and tailings management framework (ICMM 2016). While identifying owners and operators as those responsible for tailings safety, the review found that most companies have guidance documents that meet or go beyond good practice. Although the position statement represented a significant step-up in leadership and commitment, it again suggested that improvements in management, and more specifically design, construction, supervision and auditing would prevent failures. While the importance of assurance was recognized, the absence of a role for regulation in the position statement was stark and perhaps indicated the industry’s preference for self- or voluntary regulation. Whether this reflects the ICMM’s general preference for self-regulation (Dashwood 2012), or a specific belief that more robust regulations are not required to resolve tailings dam failures, is unclear.


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