Mine Tailings Storage: Safety Is No Accident

Opportunities for better tailings management The prevention of a tailings dam disasters is an ambitious, but challenging goal. A goal made more difficult by the cyclical, competitive and international nature of the mining industry. Although ICOLD (2001) provided recommendations for change, which have, in many jurisdictions, improved tailings management, the industry has not yet achieved a zero-failure rate.

The approach to tailings storage-facility design, construction and management must place safety as the number one priority. Failure to implement change, coupled with the reality of declining ore grades and consequent increasing waste volumes, will inevitably lead to more catastrophic failures with more deaths, human suffering and environmental destruction. This report makes two recommendations and identifies actions to improve regulation and practice, and inform the UN Environment stakeholder forum. Recommendation 1. The approach to tailings storage facilities must place safety first, by making environmental and human safety a priority in management actions and on-the- ground operations. Regulators, industry and communities should adopt a shared zero-failure objective to tailings storage facilities where “safety attributes should be evaluated separately from economic considerations, and cost should not be the determining factor”. (Mount Polley expert panel, 2015, p. 125) Recommendation 2. Establish a UN Environment stakeholder forum to facilitate international strengthening of tailings dam regulation. The actions below are contained in the 2001 ICOLD report or have been drawn from subsequent academic research, industry reports and post-failure investigations that identify the scale, predictability and drivers of tailings dam failures. Action 1. Facilitate international cooperation on mining regulation and the safe storage of mine tailings through a knowledge hub Create and fund an accessible public-interest, global database of mine sites, tailings storage facilities and research. Fund research into mine tailings storage failures and management of active, inactive and abandoned mine sites. Compile and review existing regulations and best practice guidance. a) b) c)

inter- and intra-variability. States have different approaches to regulation and enforcement, while companies make different commitments to public safety and shared benefits. These factors can be further complicated by global inequalities and asymmetries of power, knowledge, resources and influence that, combined with high financial flows, can create the conditions for corruption and poor regulation. These local and global realities make international cooperation essential in overcoming the voluntary, incremental and site-specific factors that restrict tailings reform. The international cooperation and coordination that comes with a global agreement could ensure a firm, universal commitment to eliminating tailings storage-facility failures and could provide the impetus for countries to learn from each other, and agree on rather than bargain away essential protections. Such an agreement could assist in overcoming obstacles posed by a lack of research and data sharing, by supporting a freely accessible international database and comprehensive research programme. With the acknowledgement that some tailings storage failures are never adequately addressed, a global agreement could provide the necessary structure for an international system of financial assurance to protect states from disaster and default. Action 2. Failure prevention Expand mining regulations, including tailings storage, independent monitoring and the enforcement of financial and criminal sanctions for non-compliance. Regularly publish disaster management plans that relate to local and regional circumstances and planning. Increase gender diversity on company boards, and include local representatives and skill sets focusing on community engagement, ethics, social and environmental impact. Establish independent waste-review boards to conduct and publish independent technical reviews prior to, during construction or modification and throughout tailings storage-facility lifespan. Avoid dam construction methods known to be high risk. Ensure any project assessment or expansion publishes all externalized costs, with an independent life-of-mine sustainability cost-benefit analysis. d) e) f) g) h) i)

Industrial mining is a complex, globalized enterprise with the many disaggregated stakeholders exhibiting high levels of


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