Following the September 11 collapse of the Jagersfontein tailings dam, in the Free State, in South Africa, mining company CEOs, government Ministers from major mining nations and other key stakeholders have been invited by institutional investors to a Global Tailings Summit to be held in London, in the UK, on January 24, four years to the day since the Brumadinho tailings dam collapsed in Brazil, causing extensive damage to property, the environment and loss of life.
“This is another dam collapse that is the legacy of having treated mining waste as an externality. The results are the same as lives are lost, houses destroyed, unknown environmental damage and communities continuing to live with unidentified risks in the shadow of tailings facilities.
“If the mining industry is to play the role society needs it to in the low carbon transition then it has a vested interest in ensuring a solution is found to address this legacy,” Investor Mining and Tailings Safety Initiative chair and Church of England Pensions Board chief responsible investment officer Adam Matthews said on September 30.
The summit is being convened by global investor initiative the Investor Mining and Tailings Safety Initiative, which is led by the Church of England Pensions Board and the Swedish Public Pension Funds. It is supported by 110 investors with more than $23-trillion in assets under management. The initiative has been instrumental in driving tailings safety concerns across the mining industry.
The summit will consider proposals that are being development for a global tailings repository to include locations and ownership details for all tailings facilities, whether under public or private control.
“Just after Brumadinho, when we convened a huge number of investors together with companies and global experts, it was astonishing to find that there is no global record of tailings facilities. We didn't know which companies had tailings facilities and what level of risk that each facility had. None of that information was there,” Matthews told Mining Weekly.
He explained that the first challenge was to establish a database of all tailings facilities. While many companies, particularly publicly listed companies, were more transparent about their tailings facilities, a large number of facilities owned by private entities remained unaccounted for, obscured by the changing of hands over time and, in some cases, poor record keeping.
To uncover all of the tailings facilities that have not been made known through reporting and the collection of documentation, the use of satellite imagery has been explored as a viable way of locating them owing to their uniquely identifiable signature.
The second challenge, after compiling a comprehensive repository, was then to establish which of those facilities were at risk so that they could be monitored and/or rehabilitated, if needed.
Therefore, a global monitoring system is proposed, which will use satellites, as well as, where available, ground sensors to independently monitor the highest-risk dams, whether publicly or privately owned.
“Where there's clear ownership structures, you can address those entities, but where there isn’t clear ownership, or where there are facilities that are in countries where there are challenges in terms of being able to address a high risk tailings facility, it becomes more complicated to deal with,” Matthews explained.
For this third challenge, the idea of a global tailings legacy rehabilitation fund has been put on the table to act as a dedicated global fund that can be deployed to address the highest risk and most dangerous orphaned tailings dams where clear owner responsibilities cannot be clearly identified or where there is not sufficient funding to do address the problem.
“Creating a rehabilitation fund is the kind of intervention that would enable us to address the highest risk facilities. Where that will be based and where that funding comes from are the issues to be discussed in the summit in January. We've put this idea on the table. We are open to other suggestions, but we do think that something like this is necessary,” Matthews said.
He explained that the establishment of the fund was important because the industry of today and the various stakeholders involved collectively had an interest in addressing the legacy of mining.
“We cannot wring our hands every time a dam collapses and say: ‘well that’s not our responsibility. Our dams are well managed.’ There is a collective responsibility to find a solution and part of that must be to have a global repository, an independent monitoring system and the creation of a global tailings legacy rehabilitation fund. Only once we have these additional steps in place, as well as the global industry standard and independent institute, will we be able to ensure zero harm,” Matthews said.
The summit will call for leadership – from company CEOs, to governments and all other interested stakeholders – to find a common solution. Companies already use satellites to complement ground monitoring, pilot studies have shown it is possible to find orphaned dams through their unique structures, and investors have been looking at best practice systems that already exist to monitor multiple facilities and raise alarms when needed.
“We cannot have two systems, where on the one hand you have companies operating today to the Global Tailings Standard, but in parallel the legacy of the industry slowly unravels leading to collapsing dams and loss of life,” Global Tailings Management Institute ambassador John Howchin said.
Considerable progress has been made following the Brumadinho disaster in January 2019, when investors worked with companies through the International Council on Mining and Metals and with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to develop a Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management. The standard is now being adopted by the largest companies around the world.
“The Institute will be central to ensuring the Standard is applied and disclosures made, and I have called on all public and private listed companies to commit to the Standard and to support the creation of the Institute. But we need to go further as an industry to ensure we tackle the legacy of mining. These proposals need serious consideration and engagement by all if we are to resolve this challenge,” Howchin said.
Further work is under way to conclude an agreement between the UN and institutional investors on the creation of an independent Global Institute on Tailings Management. This institute would be a key step to ensuring the standard was fully applied and audited.
However, neither of these interventions will impact the many dams that have passed from company ownership, either having been lost or orphaned, and are the dangerous legacy of decades of having treated mining waste as an externality, Matthews said.
The Investor Mining and Tailings Safety Initiative was launched by the Church of England Pensions Board following the Brumadinho tailings dam collapse that resulted in the deaths of 270 people.
The Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management was launched in August 2020.
The independent Global Institute on Tailings Management is driven by UNEP and investors led by the Church of England Pensions board.