A public consultation has been launched into a landmark review of tailings dams after a disaster in Brazil earlier this year.

The Global Tailings Review, has drafted a new standard that would “develop a robust, fit-for-purpose international standard for the safer management of tailings”.

Tailings dams are waste product stockpiles created by miners during mineral separation.

An investigation conducted by the Mining and Tailings Safety Initiative (MTSI), an organisation of active investors across the extractive industry, revealed that 10% of these dams have a history of structural instability.

It published the review in October and has now invited the public to give feedback “to help drive the change process forward”.

Dr Bruno Oberle, who chaired the review, said: “The draft standard is one part of a wider global drive to strengthen performance on tailings management and the requirements of the draft standard can complement these initiatives – for example, in areas such as corporate governance and public reporting.”


What is a tailings dam?

There are about 3,500 tailings dams around the world and they are typically made from the waste product stockpiles left over from mining operations, known as tailings.

They are used to store the waste made from separating minerals from rocks, or the slurry produced from tar sands mining.

The tailings usually consist of wet sludge, due to large amounts of water and sometimes chemicals being used to extract minerals and metals.

Depending on the type of mine, these tailings can be toxic and highly dangerous.


What is the Global Tailings Review?

The Global Tailings Review aims to establish an international standard on tailings facilities management.

It was set up by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) and UN-backed Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI).

The investigation was launched in response to the Brumadinho dam disaster, in Brazil, on 25 January 2019.

An estimated 270 people died after a tailings dam at mining giant Vale’s Córrego do Feijão iron ore operation collapsed.

It was Brazil’s worst industrial disaster and sent shockwaves through an industry in which worker safety has a chequered history.

tailings dams
The aftermath of the Brumadinho tailings dam incident (Credit: Ibama/Flickr)

UNEP’s economy division director Ligia Noronha said: “Tailings dam failures are no accidents. They are tragedies.

“While minerals are important to the green energy transition and sustainable development, ensuring human and ecosystem wellbeing is of paramount importance.

“UNEP has co-convened the Global Tailings Review to develop an industry standard that ensures a greater responsibility, trust and assurance that minerals development will lead to positive outcomes for all.

“To this end, the public consultation is a strategic step in the process of development of this industry standard.

“We invite local communities and experts to express their opinion and contribute to making the standard as robust as possible.”


Aims of the Global Tailings Review’s consultation

The consultation will take place in two parts and will end on 31 December.

It involves online survey and and a consultation across a range of mining jurisdictions in the northern and southern hemispheres.

It aims to address six key topics:

  • Knowledge base – requires mine operators to develop knowledge about the social, economic and environmental context of a proposed or existing tailings facility.
  • Affected communities – focuses on the people living and working nearby. It requires human rights due diligence and meaningful engagement of project-affected people.
  • Design, construction, operation and monitoring of tailings facilities – aims to review designs, construction, operation and monitoring of tailings facilities.
  • Management and governance – focuses on ongoing management and governance of tailings facilities. It defines a number of key roles, essential systems and critical processes.
  • Emergency response and long-term recovery – covers emergency preparedness and response in the event of a disaster, the re-establishment of ecosystems, and the long-term recovery of affected communities.
  • Public disclosure and access to information – requires public access to information about tailings facilities in order for all stakeholders to be informed of the risks and impacts, management and mitigation plans, and performance monitoring.

ICMM CEO Tom Butler said: “We note there is still much work to do in order for ICMM to endorse the final standard.

“ICMM’s membership is committed to engaging in an open and transparent discussion and providing feedback through the consultation in order to ensure the final standard is both feasible and effective in meeting our shared goal.”

It is expected the final Global Tailings Standard and an accompanying report outlining broader proposals within the industry will be published next year.


Global Tailings Review follows investigation into tailings dams

An inquiry conducted by the MTSI found that 166 of 1,635 tailings dams surveyed throughout the year have reported stability issues during their lifetime.

MTSI is led by the Church of England (CoE) Pensions Board and the Swedish National Pension Funds’ (SNPF) Council of Ethics, which engages with businesses on issues of health and safety.

The consortium of investor interests within the MTSI membership oversee more than $13.5tn in assets under management globally.

Tailings Dams Review
MTSI found that 166 of 1,635 tailings dams surveyed throughout the year have reported stability issues during their lifetime (Credit: Barsamuphe)

The organisation asked 726 mining firms worldwide to report the situation of their tailings dams.

But less than half of these requests were actually answered – leaving an incomplete picture of the true global situation.

North America was found to have the highest number of tailings dams, with almost 500 reported to investors, while the single tallest dam structure reviewed is based in Peru and stands 265 metres high.

A cumulative 45 billion cubic metres of tailings were found to be in storage in the dams reported to the MTSI.