Going global and going public20 April 2020
A greater level of transparency is beginning to creep across the mining industry. In the wake of recent tailings dam disasters, a publicly available database on global tailings dams has been launched, as work continues on a new global standard for safer management of facilities.
The Brumadinho tailings dam disaster. Image courtesy of Ibama
On the first anniversary of the Brumadinho tailings dam disaster in Brazil that killed 270 people, the world’s first publicly available database of mining tailings dams was launched in January 2020. Until now there has been no central database detailing the location and quantity of the mining industry’s liquid and solid waste, known as tailings.
“This portal could save lives,” says Elaine Baker, senior expert at environmental organisation GRID-Arendal, and a geosciences professor with the University of Sydney in Australia. “Dams are getting bigger and bigger. Mining companies have found most of the highest-grade ores and are now mining lower-grade ones, which create more waste. With this information, the entire industry can work towards reducing dam failures in the future.”
The Global Tailings Portal is a free searchable database with detailed information on more than 1800 tailings dams around the world. It enables users to sort data by location, company, dam type, height, volume and risk, among other factors. Using data submitted from more than 100 of the world’s largest mining companies, it is designed to be used by governments, scientists, the finance community, the mining industry, media and civil society. It was built and hosted by GRID-Arendal as part of the Investor Mining and Tailings Safety Initiative, which is led by the Church of England Pensions Board and the Swedish National Pension Funds’ Council on Ethics, with support from the UN Environment Programme.
Investor-led intervention into the safety of tailings structures was instigated in the aftermath of the Brumadinho dam failure in January 2019. This had followed a previous Brazilian tailings dam collapse in Minas Gerais in 2015 that killed 19 people, plus a longer history of other tailings dam failures worldwide.
The Investor Mining and Tailings Safety Initiative asked 727 publicly listed mining companies for detailed disclosures on their tailings storage facilities. As of December 2019, 332 had responded. Of these 100 companies with tailings storage facilities provided information which was incorporated into the Global Tailings Portal.
“Most of this information has never before been publicly available,” says Kristina Thygesen, GRID-Arendal’s programme leader for geological resources and a member of the team that worked on the portal. “This database brings a new level of transparency to the mining industry.”
The portal is intended to be a global hub which provides up-to-date and reliable information in the public interest. So far the focus has been on publicly listed companies but disclosures from private and state-owned entities are welcomed. The project also aims to increase upon the number of dams described. The first round of disclosures has captured many of the world’s largest tailings dams but there are still many more out there. Some of these are active, legacy sites, or ‘orphaned’ - where it is not clear who carries responsibly. The actual number of tailings dams is debated with estimates ranging from 3500 to 33,000.
Those involved are proud of this world-first database of mining operations and, although it is far from complete, it is starting to help make sense of the numbers involved in the global mining industry.
Tailings mud after dam rupture in Brumadinho in 2019
Alongside the establishment of the Global Tailings Portal, the Investor Mining and Tailings Safety Initiative also called for the introduction of a Global Tailings Standard.
One year on from the Brumadinho dam collapse, Bruno Oberle, Chair of the Global Tailings Review, made the following statement:
“On the anniversary of the devastating tragedy at Brumadinho, we remember those who lost their lives and those whose lives will forever more be impacted by loss suffered on that day.
“Since July 2019, I have led the Global Tailings Review which was co-convened by the International Council on Mining and Metals, Principles for Responsible Investment and United Nations Environment Programme in response to this tragedy. Our mission is to establish an international standard for the safer management of tailings facilities with the ultimate goal of preventing another such event.
“A draft standard, which was the culmination of an initial research phase, was shared globally for public consultation in November 2019. With the consultation conducted online in seven languages, and through in-person consultation in Kazakhstan, China, Chile, Ghana, South Africa and Australia, many constructive and helpful insights were received from a wide variety of stakeholders. We are currently in the process of analysing the comprehensive feedback received and balancing diverse stakeholder views to strengthen the standard.
“The first anniversary is a strong reminder of the importance of our work and we remain highly motivated to create a product that will deliver a step change in the safe management of tailings facilities across the industry.”
Samarco: mining in a safer and more responsible way?
On 25 October 2019, Brazilian mining company Samarco received the Corrective Operation Licence for its operating activities located in the state of Minas Gerais. Operations were halted following the fatal Fundão dam collapse at the Germano plant in November 2015.
Samarco has now obtained all environmental licences required to restart its operations. The company is expected to restart using new technologies for dry tailings stacking. However, following the implementation of the filtration process, and subject to shareholder approval, it does not expect to restart operations until the end of 2020.
With the filtration process, Samarco says it should be able to substantially dewater sand tailings (80% of total tailings by volume) and stack these filtered sand tailings in piles safely. The remaining 20% of tailings are planned to be deposited in its Alegria South pit - a self-contained bedrock structure which the company claims increases safety.
Samarco says it reaffirms its commitment to the communities and areas affected by the Fundão tailings dam rupture and notes that around US$1.94B have been allocated to reparation and compensation measures.
Rodrigo Vilela, CEO of Samarco said: “The recently granted Corrective Operational Licence represents much more than the authorisation to resume Samarco’s activities. It shows our commitment to society and to a new action model.
“Our actions are guided by the lessons learned from the collapse of the Fundão dam, a fact that has impacted the lives of thousands of people and the environment, marking our history forever and which we will never forget. In this scenario, we move forward, assuming our responsibilities for reparation through the Renova Foundation.
Safety is a corporate value of Samarco. We have invested to improve our risk management, we have an integrated geotechnical structure monitoring system, a specialised team and more than 800 pieces of monitoring equipment for these structures, which are stable, according to independent external audits…..We want to contribute to the future of mining in a safer and more responsible way. This is our commitment.”