Initiative launches first global standard for safer mining waste storage

Article by Amanda Jasi

ON 5 August, the Global Tailings Review (GTR) initiative established the first global standard for safer management of tailings storage facilities (TSFs), with the launch of the Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management. The GTR Chair has called for effective implementation across the industry.

Experts have criticised the standard, stating that it falls short in its attempt to improve safety, and fails to make safety a guiding principle.

Tailings are the waste product of ore processing; a fine slurry made of uneconomic rock and chemical effluent that is stored in TSFs, such as tailings dams.

Leo Correa/AP/Shutterstock
Emerson dos Santos stands on the debris of his mother's house in Brazil, following the collapse of a Vale tailings dam

Following the fatal collapse of a Brazilian tailings dam owned by mining giant Vale that killed at least 259 people, GTR was convened by industry body International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM); the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP); and Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI), an international investor network, representing US$103.4trn in assets under management. A Chair, advisory panel, and expert panel from academia and consulting were appointed, and through a process involving investigation of tailings management, evaluation of current best practices and lessons learned, and extensive public consultation they developed the standard.

According to GTR, the new standard strengthens current mining industry practices through an integrated approach. GTR adds that with its ambition for zero harm to people and the environment, the standard “raises the bar” for industry to achieve strong social, environmental, and technical outcomes.

It covers the entire lifecycle of TSFs – from site selection, design and construction, through management and monitoring, to closure and post-closure – and can be applied to existing and future facilities. It comprises 77 auditable requirements and 15 principles, organised around six topic areas.

One topic area requires the development of knowledge about the social, environmental and local economic context of a proposed or existing TSF. This knowledge base, which should be regularly updated, could inform decisions throughout the facility’s lifecycle. For example, for new facilities, the knowledge could be used to conduct analysis of all feasible sites, technologies, and strategies for tailings management. The goal of analysis would be to select alternatives that minimise risk as well as the volume of tailings and water placed into external tailings facilities.

Another topic area aims to elevate performance in the design, construction, operation, maintenance, monitoring, and closing of TSFs by minimising risks of TSFs throughout their lifecycle, and the risks posed to people and the environment.

An example would be developing and implementing a water balance model and associated water management plans taking into account the knowledge base including climate change, upstream and downstream hydrological and hydrogeological basins, the mine site, mine planning and overall operations, and the integrity of the TSF throughout its lifecycle. The water management programme “must” be designed to protect against unintentional releases. High water level was one of several factors identified to be responsible for the 2019 collapse of Vale’s tailings dam.

Other topic areas are aimed at helping to ensure that the rights of project-affected people are respected and they are meaningfully engaged; improving management and governance of TSFs; ensuring that operators are prepared to respond in the event of failures; and establishing expectations around global transparency and disclosure requirements, to help improve the understanding of interested stakeholders.

The standard will be integrated into ICMM member commitments. Additionally, member companies have committed to bringing facilities that pose high levels of risk to people and the environment into conformance with the standard within three years of its launch, and all others within five years. PRI will develop investor expectations to support mining companies in implementing it. UNEP will support governments wishing to incorporate and build upon the standard, into national or state legislation and policies. 

Bruno Oberle, Chair of the Global Tailings Review, called on all mining companies, governments, and investors to use the standard and to continue working together to improve the safety of tailings facilities globally.

He added: “It is my hope that the standard will be supported by an independent body that can maintain the quality and further refine and strengthen…[it]…over time.”

Ligia Noronha, Director of UNEP’s Economy Division, said that environmental and human safety should be a priority for mine tailings facilities, adding that the standard “is an important milestone towards the ambition of zero harm to people and the environment from tailings facilities”.

She added: “In order to maintain the integrity of the standard, it is crucial that a non-industry organisation identify and pursue the most effective implementation model such as the establishment of an independent entity. To this end, UNEP will continue to engage in dialogue with other interested stakeholders to explore potential solutions.”

Two documents were independently published to accompany the standard: an in-depth compendium of papers exploring various operational and governance issues related to tailings, and a report on the feedback from the public consultation.

Expert criticisms

Lindsay Newland Bowker, said that “the GTR is an important waypoint but falls critically short in many key areas of preventing catastrophic loss”. Bowker is the Executive Director of research institute World Mining Tailings Failures.

She added: “The biggest risk of catastrophic failure is in existing facilities in current and planned use over the next five years which have a high hazard potential rating. The GTR lacks a clear plan for identifying and de-risking these facilities, including a plan for financing. That implementation and evaluation will not be in control of ICMM or the industry is a plus and may develop enough information soon enough to better describe and better address the high level of risk in the present world portfolio.”

However, Bowker also claimed that the preliminary contribution made by GTR towards “zero harm” is far better than that of Safety First: Guidelines for Responsible Mine Tailings Management, which was released on 30 June. Developed by an international group of 142 scientists, community groups and NGOs from 24 countries, the guideline claimed to make safety the guiding principle in the design, construction, operation, and closure of tailings facilities. 

Bowker previously said that despite good intentions, the report did an “awkward, not-very-worthy job of delivering this simple message and in all that jumble of text that message is lost”.

David Chambers, an expert who was involved in the development of Safety First, recognised that the new standard helps to raise the visibility of the serious need for increased tailings dam safety, but noted its failure to recognise the suggestions made by Safety First. Chambers is a geophysicist and President of the Center for Science in Public Participation, which provides technical expertise on the impacts of mining.

“For example, safety is not explicitly stated as the guiding principle in tailings management. The standard acknowledges mining companies should “take responsibility and prioritise” safety but does not explicitly require that safety take precedent over economic, environmental, and social considerations. If economics and safety are given the same priority, economics will always dominate the subsequent decision making.”

Chambers also criticised the fact that although communities “who bear the impacts of tailings dam failures” were consulted, they were not represented in the process to develop the standard.

On 25 January, Vale’s Dam 1 of the Córrego do Feijão mine, located in Minas Gerais collapsed, releasing a torrent of 9.7m m3 of muddy slurry which buried the surrounding area, killing Vale employees, contractors, and members of a nearby community. As of 28 December 2019, 259 people are confirmed dead and 11 people remain missing.

Article by Amanda Jasi

Staff reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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