JOHANNESBURG (miningweekly.com) – In the last decade, there have been over 40 mining waste failures, killing some 341 people, damaging hundreds of kilometres of waterways, and affecting drinking water sources and the livelihood of communities, a new report entitled ‘Mine Tailings Storage: Safety Is No Accident’, reveals.
The report, published by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which urges governments and industry to act to stop deadly and damaging mining spills worldwide, has received wide support from an international coalition of nongovernmental organisations and called for an urgent UN Environment Stakeholder Forum to strengthen regulations internationally.
Of the 18 recommendations made in the report, UNEP called for transparency through a global database of mine sites and for funding to research the causes of mine tailings storage failures.
Currently, there is no publicly accessible inventory of tailings dams; however, one estimate has put the number of tailings dams at 3 500. “This is likely an underestimate as there could be more than 30 000 industrial mines,” said UNEP.
The global volume of stored tailings is also unknown, but recent disasters illustrate the potential scale of accidents. For example, the Mount Polley spill, in Canada, in 2014, and the tailings dam failure at the Samarco mine, in Brazil, in 2015, each released more than 25-million cubic metres of tailings into the environment – combined, this represents enough material to fill more than 20 000 Olympic swimming pools.
The report also called for accountability, best practices and financial securities.
The cost of tailings dam failures to industry can be extremely high. For example, BHP has provided $174-million to the Renova Foundation for remediation and compensation programmes following the Samarco dam failure and is also facing a potentially costly civil claim.
Further, the report highlighted that 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,” it stated.
“We believe the recommendations from this UNEP report pose a serious challenge to both mining companies and their regulators to improve the rigour of the management of mining waste facilities,” London Mining Network’s Richard Harkinson stated.
Earthworks US’s Payal Sampat added that waste storage facilities are like ticking time bombs, putting communities and waterways in harm’s way in the event of catastrophic failure. “Despite claims by mining trade associations, governments and companies have done far too little to truly prevent future disasters.”
The UNEP report states that the thousands of mining waste dams pose a potential threat to people and the environment located downstream, noting that: “The increasing number and size of tailings dams around the globe magnifies the potential environmental, social and economic cost of catastrophic failure impact and the risks and costs of perpetual management. These risks present a challenge for this generation, and if not addressed now, a debt we will leave to future generations.”
“Developing the green technologies needed to achieve the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals means the demand for large quantities of minerals and metals will continue to grow for the foreseeable future. Safer, cleaner and less wasteful extraction and production is paramount to ensuring resource availability, but also community wellbeing and ecosystem resilience,” UNEP economy division director Ligia Noronha added.