Monthly Archives: December 2017

Momis announces moratorium on Panguna mining and exploration

Panguna copper mine on Bougainville … the catalyst for decade-long civil war. Image: Aloysius Laukai/Bougainville Forum

Aloysius Laukai | Asia Pacific Report | 23 December 2017

The President of the Autonomous Bougainville Government, Chief Dr John Momis, has announced an indefinite moratorium on exploration and mining in Panguna.

He said the Bougainville Executive Council had its meeting on Wednesday made a “thoughtful and considered” decision to impose an indefinite reservation moratorium from any exploration or mining over Panguna in the best interest of the landowners and the people of Bougainville.

The council debating the issue following advice from the Bougainville Mining Advisory Council.

“It is with much regret that the basic requirement for obtaining the landowners consent under the Bougainville Mining Act 2015 could not be met,” Momis said.

The voice of the Panguna landowners was clearly heard during the mining warden hearing that decided in a narrow split between those supporting the mine reopening by Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL) and the opponents.

Dr Momis also said that to develop the mine by any other developer would be “untenable” under current circumstances.

“We will not allow this project once again to reignite the wounds of the Bougainville crisis and distract our focus for restoring peace and our preparation for our referendum in 2019,” he said.

Continued consultations

While imposing this Panguna moratorium, Dr Momis said his government would continue to consult with Panguna landowners and the people of Bougainville over an “appropriate arrangement” or best alternative models of development of the mine if the people still had an appetite to develop the mine in the future.

The Bougainville Civil War was fought in 1988-1998 between Papua New Guinean military forces and secessionist guerrillas of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA).

The conflict led to an estimated 15,000-20,000 deaths on Bougainville before a peace agreement was brokered by New Zealand in 1998. This led to the establishment of the Bougainville Autonomous Region Government.

Bougainvilleans are due to vote in a referendum on possible independence in June 2019.


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Chris Baria

They say that if you told a lie enough times it becomes the gospel truth in your mind, which means you yourself will begin to believe it as well.

That is exactly what happened with the BCL saga. We know now how the landowners feel about BCL and resumption of Mining in Panguna after the Warden’s hearing was held there. The fact is, how many times had we seen the President go to the media and boast that 90% of the landowners were in favour of Mining and BCL? He even slammed the report by Jubilee Australia which clearly indicated that the people in the mine affected area appeared to be mentally stressed and bore mental scars from the crisis and having their land and environment damaged, and they themselves displaced by the mine. If anything, these people expressed horror when questioned about return of BCL and the reopening of Panguna mine.

Surely our dear President would have saved himself a lot of embarrassment had he heeded the warning by Jubilee and even AusAid for that matter. Jubilee didn’t sit around in Buka and wait for a fortuneteller to come from Panguna and tell them what they hoped to hear. They went in and found out for themselves while ABG and it’s administration drove around in 5 door cruisers and held meetings that never delivered anything.

The sad fact of course is that people’s time, money and efforts have been wasted chasing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Our President is surely a man of many colors of the rainbow. Due to mass hypnotism induced through flowery rhetoric our memory banks were wiped clean and we did not waste time in reinstating our master orator as the President of Bougainville. We reinstated him with landslide votes showing that foolish people in large groups can still wield a lot of power under the pretext of democracy.

What we seemed to have forgotten is that under a different color in 1989 our President was the man who bitterly attacked BCL in the media calling it “wild pig” and proposed “Bougainville Initiative” under which a new mining company would replace BCL. Although it was just a lot of hot it did however, help to start a war when it stirred up the landowners who were already fed up with BCL. I don’t know if BCL too had forgotten what he had done back then but in politics you often find strange people on the same bed and in our case with “the devil we know”.

After all this time it took Mining Warden’s hearing to finally spell out the truth. Imagine what would have happened if a handful of women and excombatants had not stopped the President and his full cabinet and BCL management trying to sneak into Panguna to sign the MOA?

I leave that question with you and I never have lost hope for Bougainville. I do hope that we have learnt some costly lessons and that based on those lessons we can now move forward into 2018.



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Australia’s Bougainville Copper falls on Panguna moratorium

Bougainvillean’s proudly display “No BCL Ever” T-shirts. Image: Me’ekamui

Bougainville Copper’s shares tumbled as much as 17 percent on Wednesday

Devika Syamnath | Reuters | December 27, 2017

Bougainville Copper Ltd shares fell on Wednesday following a report that the government of the Pacific island of Bougainville plans to impose a moratorium on mining or exploration at Panguna, once one of the world’s biggest copper mines.

Bougainville Copper has been working to restart the mine, which was shut by a civil war in 1989.

Bougainville President John Momis said the island’s executive council decided to impose the indefinite moratorium after landowners narrowly failed to support a plan to reopen the mine, the New Zealand-based Asia Pacific Report said on Dec. 23.

“We will not allow this project once again to reignite the wounds of the Bougainville crisis and distract our focus for restoring peace and our preparation for our referendum in 2019,” the report quoted Momis as saying.

The Autonomous Bougainville Government could not be reached for comment.

Bougainville Copper said in a statement it was seeking clarification from Bougainville’s Department of Minerals and Energy Resources about the report.

Bougainville’s quarter of a million people are tentatively scheduled to vote on independence from Papua New Guinea in June 2019. Revenue from the reopening of the Panguna mine is [allegedly] essential for the otherwise impoverished island. There has been a struggle over who will run the mine between Bougainville Copper, backed by the Bougainville and Papua New Guinea governments, and a consortium of Australian investors supported by the head of the landowners.

The abandoned copper and gold mine contains one of the world’s largest copper deposits. During its 17-year life until the closure in 1989, Panguna was credited for generating almost one-half of Papua New Guinea’s gross domestic product.

Bougainville Copper’s shares tumbled as much as 17 percent on Wednesday, compared to a 0.4 percent rise on the Australian benchmark , giving the company a market value of about A$90 million ($70 million). ($1 = 1.2937 Australian dollars)


Bougainville Copper says yet to be notified about any Panguna halt

Devika Syamnath | Reuters | December 27 2017

Bougainville Copper Ltd said on Wednesday it is yet to be notified by the government of the Pacific Island of Bougainville of any moratorium on the Panguna mine, once one of the world’s biggest copper mines.

The company said it was seeking clarification from Bougainville’s Department of Minerals and Energy Resources regarding reports of a statement from Bougainville President John Momis regarding an indefinite moratorium on exploration and mining in Panguna.

The quarter of a million people of Bougainville are tentatively scheduled to vote on independence from Papua New Guinea in June 2019, and revenue from the reopening of the Panguna mine is [allegedly] essential for the otherwise impoverished island. The mine has been shut for nearly three decades by a civil war on the island.

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Deep-Sea Gold Miners Target PNG Coast

Underwater life

Locals fear for their environment despite promises of riches.

Luke Hunt | The Diplomat | December 27, 2017

Deep-sea mining is about to take an enormous step into the future. Off the coast of Papua New Guinea, in the Bismark Sea, the extraction of rich gold and copper deposits by a multinational group is promising high returns and they insist they are doing their best to allay environmental concerns.

But not everyone is convinced.

Court action has been launched amid claims the PNG government is withholding information about the multi-billion dollar project, Solwara 1 field, operated by Nautilus Minerals Inc, a Canadian-based company backed by Russian and Omani mining firms.

The Centre for Environmental Law and Community Rights in Port Moresby says there are serious issues with the mining operation and deployment of state-of-the-art heavy digging equipment about 1.6 kilometres below the surface. Locals say have not been consulted properly.

Renowned environmentalist and journalist David Attenborough has also opposed the project because thermal vents, where the deposits are often found, are a key source for the earliest signs of life on Earth. He fears they will be damaged and insists they should be protected.

In 2009, Nautilus was granted an environmental permit for the Solwara 1 field  – a volcanic area between the islands of New Britain and New Ireland – after the initial finds were made by Australian-based CSIRO in 1996. A mining license was granted two years later.

Seabed mining – which Nautilus described as the next big disruptive technology – is normally focused on areas around metallic nodules, also known as active or extinct hydrothermal vents, which carry valuable metal deposits.

The deposits are excavated and drawn to the surface in a slurry, the water is removed and the rock transferred and broken down for minerals like gold, copper and tellurium while the extracted water is discharged on the sea floor.

Tellurium is a key metal used in the making of high performance solar panels and its grades are up to 50,000 times more concentrated when dug from the sea-bed.

Its supporters also say that deep sea mining is an effective alternative to traditional mining on-land, which has proved destructive to the natural environment around the world.

“It makes sense to explore this untapped potential in an environmentally sustainable way, instead of continually looking at the fast depleting land resources of the planet to meet society’s rising needs,” Mike Johnston, Nautilus’s chief executive, recently told The Guardian.

But the area is rich in fish stocks and supports a lucrative tuna industry. Any damage to sea floor, scientists warn would have a detrimental impact on marine life in the area thus the Solwara field is increasingly being seen as a litmus test for an industry gearing up for the next big gold rush.

Critics also said the environmental impact assessment is insufficient as it does not include a “rigorous risk assessment” or an environmental management plan.

Like East Timor, PNG wants entry into ASEAN, a trade bloc that has done to little to protect its own environment against the forces of developers and corporates with much deeper pockets than the landowners whose real estate they’d like to monetize.

Rainforests in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand and the wildlife they houses have been devastated, the annual haze, caused by forest fires in Indonesia, is an international embarrassment, islands and river communities have been lost to sand dredging and fish stocks in the Mekong River and other major waterways are pitiful when compared with just 20 years ago.

And given the wealth of marine life and an abundance of seabed topography suitable for this type of mining around Southeast Asia — particularly in Indonesia and The Philippines — ASEAN must pay closer attention to this issue if a repeat of the ecological disasters of the past are to be avoided.


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Wafi-Gulpu mine to dump toxic tailings in the ocean

Tailings placement site identified

Cedric Patjole | Loop PNG | December 26, 2017

The Huon Gulf deep sea trenches have been identified as a suitable location for deep sea tailings placement [toxic waste dumping] from the Wafi-Golpu Project [mine].

The Wafi-Golpu Joint Venture (WGJV) presented during the PNG Mining and Petroleum Conference that the Huon Gulf deep sea trench was highly suitable.

Wafi-Golpu Joint Venture executive project director, Bryan Bailie, said in the presentation that local rivers, including the Markham, discharged 60 million tons per annum of natural sediment into the Markham Canyon, which reports to the New Britain Trench which is 9000 metres deep.

He said it was a highly disturbed environment, with regular purging of sediments through mass flow events and has low bio accumulated risk.

Huon Gulf is located on the northern coast of PNG, occupied by Morobe Province.

Huon Gulf offers spectacular scenery, accessible diving spots and a range of climates from sub-alpine and alpine to tropical.

Meanwhile, the Joint venture says a stable legislative and fiscal regime is critical to the development of the Wafi-Golpu Mine Project.

The component is among five key areas which the Joint Venture highlighted and include:

  • The completion of the updated feasibility study, and Environmental Impact Statement;
  • Completion of the permitting and approval by the Harmony and Newcrest boards;
  • Sustained landowner and community support; and
  • Ongoing close coordination between WGJV and Government agencies


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Chan reaffirms stance against Solwara 1 project

Jemimah Sukbat | Loop PNG | December 24, 2017

The views of Governor Sir Julius Chan and the New Ireland Provincial Government have not changed, they have always been against the experimental seabed mining.

This was reaffirmed by NIPG after Loop PNG published an article questioning the governor’s stance.

In response, Loop PNG was told that the provincial government has been demanding that an independent environmental impact study be conducted and the findings be made known to NIPG.

“It will be worthwhile to note that the decision for Nautilus minerals to mine undersea had been made by the national government and as it is under the Mining Act, everything in the earth, in and above the sea belongs to the State,” clarified the government.

“Sir J recognises this and is working on amendments to the act, so mama and papa graun can be fully recognised as owners of these minerals.

“The amendments have gone before Parliament as a private member’s bill.”

NIPG further said as Nautilus is doing business in New Ireland waters using the road and land as access to its ships, etc, they have demanded that Nautilus give back to the community in projects, which it is doing on the west coast.

“Nautilus had so far shown good corporate responsibility but this is not enough to convince NIPG that seabed mining is safe.”

Meanwhile, non-governmental organisations have been advised to visit Sir Julius’ Kavieng office and dialogue with their government.

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EITI releases 2016 Report

Cedric Patjole | Loop PNG | December 23, 2017

The PNG Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI) has released its 2016 Report.

This is the fourth report by the entity since joining the global EITI standards movement.

In his forward in the report, Treasurer Charles Abel said the 2016 Financial Year Report is the culmination of continued commitment, collaboration and efforts by the Government, extractive industries and civil society organisations to provide a comprehensive picture of the sector, its impact on the economy and our management of the revenues and benefits derived.

He said the 2016 Report is important in that it will form the basis of an external review and assessment for PNG’s EITI membership validation in 2018.

“The EITI process can also help improve current policy settings, the taxation and fiscal regime governing the extractives sector,” he stated.

“It demands Government to adhere to global best practices in the sector by increasing transparency and accountability of extractive revenues. It also demands the highest levels of transparency in the collection and distribution of revenues by the Government.

“I encourage the public to read the contents of the report and use it as a basis for stimulating further discussions on the management of the sector,” said Abel.

“Though PNG remains one of the most challenging countries to invest in geographically, it is amongst the most geologically attractive countries in the world.

“While global commodity prices have remained subdued in the last couple of years, developers of a number of proposed projects in PNG have remained committed and proceeded with several major mines set to come on stream in the near future.

“With promising signs of global commodity prices recovering, both developers, Government and our people stand to gain from the operation of these projects.

“The Government values the EITI process because it is playing a critical role in providing such reports to the public for them to better understand how we are managing the revenues and other benefits derived from the sector.”

Abel reassures investors that PNG is committed to transparency and accountability to achieve better outcomes for our development aspirations.

The PNG EITI aims to promote revenue transparency and accountability in the country’s mining and petroleum sectors.

This report covers the calendar year from 1 January 2016 to 31 December 2016.


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Has Momis admitted defeat over plan to bring back BCL?

The Panguna mine was a catalyst for the civil war on Bougainville in the 1990s. It has sat abandoned since 1989. Photo: supplied

Conscious of old wounds, Bougainville halts mine development

Radio New Zealand | 23 December 2017

Bougainville is to put on hold any new development at the controversial Panguna copper mine.

The mine was the catalyst for the civil war in the Papua New Guinea region and has been shut down for nearly 28 years.

The autonomous Bougainville government has been keen to re-open it in order to boost the region’s economy as it prepares for an independence referendum in 2019.

But local journalist Aloysius Laukai has reported President John Momis saying his government has imposed an indefinite moratorium on exploration and mining at Panguna.

Mr Momis said this was in the best interests of the landowners and people of Bougainville and was made on the advice of the Bougainville Mining Advisory Council.

He said his government ”will not allow this project once again to reignite the wounds of the Bougainville crisis and distract our focus for restoring peace and our preparation for our referendum in 2019”.

It comes amid a battle by the former operator Bougainville Copper Ltd, or BCL, and Australian company, RTG, to win the right to proceed.

Mr Momis said BCL, in which his government has a major interest, cannot secure the consent of the landowners while it is untenable for any other developer under the “current circumstances.”

RTG had claimed to have the backing of the Special Mining Lease Osikaiang Landownwers Association, which controls the land at the site of the mine, but the ABG has been strongly critical of the company’s involvement.

Meanwhile Mr Momis said his government would ”continue to consult with Panguna landowners and the people of Bougainville over an appropriate arrangement or best alternative models of development of the mine if the people still had an appetite” to develop Panguna in the future.

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Money hungry Nautilus weighs funding options as project challenges mount

Henry Lazenby | Mining Weekly | 22 December 2017

Marine mining pioneer Nautilus Minerals is in active discussions with a range of potential financiers and shareholders to secure the funding required to start mining the Solwara 1 project, offshore Papua New Guinea (PNG), the company said on Thursday.

The company has thus far been unsuccessful to secure tens of millions of dollars required to keep the project and associated production equipment and support vessel on track to start production in the Bismarck Sea during the first quarter of 2019.

Nautilus said in September that it needs to raise at least $41-million before year end, in order to meet the company’s contractual commitments regarding certain equipment forming part of the seafloor production system.

The Toronto-headquartered company cautioned that there can be no assurances that it will be successful in securing the necessary additional financing transactions within the required time, or at all. In the latter case, the company will evaluate all options to maximise shareholder value.

Meanwhile, Fujian Mawei Shipbuilding, the owner of the shipyard where Nautilus’ production support vessel (PSV) is being built, has notified the company that MAC Goliath, the buyer of the PSV, has failed to pay the third instalment of the contract price of about $18-million, plus accrued interest.

Should MAC fail to make the payment within 21 days from December 11, the shipyard has the right to sell the about 70% completed vessel. Nautilus has the option to remedy the default on behalf of MAC, or replace MAC as a party to the contract via a novation, but given the current funding shortfall, the company has its work cut out.

Nautilus advise that the vessel’s derrick substructure was recently delivered to the shipyard for installation on the PSV. Further, the builder is installing foundations for two of the three launch and recovery systems, the bulk cutter winch has been installed, work on the cargo handling system is progressing, and both the 100 T and 200 T cranes have also been installed.

The company advised in October that submerged trials of the first of the seafloor production tools (SPTs), the collecting machine (CM), have been completed at the trial facility in Motukea IslandPort Moresby, PNG.

The trial results indicated that the machine can perform to design specifications, and the team is now looking at operating enhancements. The auxiliary cutter has also been trialled and will be followed by the bulk cutter.

Nautilus formed a joint venture company with PNG’s nominee, Eda Kopa (Solwara), in December 2014 to mine high-grade polymetallic seafloor massive sulphide deposits. Nautilus has an 85% shareholding and Eda Kopa 15%.

Nautilus in September 2016 announced a revised work programme, pending the company successfully raising the required capital by June this year. It entails a more staged approach, moving the Nautilus equipment integration phase of vessel construction out until after the vessel has been delivered by Fujian Mawei Shipyard and Marine Assets Corporate in the fourth quarter of 2018, resulting in a 12-month delay to the original schedule. 

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Mine tailings dam failures major cause of environmental disasters: report

Mining companies in PNG have an appalling record when it comes to tailings management.

Will the proposed Frieda river mine be the next disaster in waiting?

Zoe Sullivan | Mongabay | 19 December 2017

  • Between 2008-2017 it’s estimated that more than 340 people died, communities have been ravaged, property ruined, rivers contaminated, fisheries wrecked and drinking water polluted by mining tailings dam collapses. Estimates from the year 2000 put the total number of tailings dams globally at 3,500, though there are likely more that have not been counted.
  • A new United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) report states that as mining production escalates globally to provide the minerals and metals required for a variety of industrial needs, including green technologies, it is urgent that nations and companies address tailings dam safety.
  • The UNEP report recommends that mining companies strive for a “zero-failure objective” in regard to tailings dams, superseding economic goals. UNEP also recommends the establishment of a UN environmental stakeholder forum to support stronger international regulations for tailings dams, and the creation of a global database of mine sites and tailings storage facilities to track dam failures.
  • One idea would be to eliminate types of tailings dams that are just too dangerous to be tolerated. For example, mining experts say there is no way to insure against the failure of “wet tailings disposal” dams, like the Samarco dam that failed in 2015 – Brazil’s worst environmental disaster ever. As a result, they recommend storing all future tailings waste via “dry stock disposal.”

The Imperial Metals Mount Polley gold and copper mine tailings dam disaster in British Columbia, Canada, dumped 24 million cubic meters (more than 31 million cubic yards) of mine waste and sludge into neighboring Lake Polley and polluting the Hazeltine Creek watershed. Photo courtesy of the Multinationals Observatory

It’s estimated that more than 340 people have been killed since 2008 in mining tailings dam failures –preventable environmental disasters that also saw the ruination of communities and property, the contamination of rivers, destruction of fisheries, and pollution of drinking water supplies.

Spurred by those calamities, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) has issued a report stressing the need for increased tailings dam safety around the globe. Tailings dams store pools of toxic mining waste.

UNEP notes that large quantities of minerals and metals will be required in the near future for a variety of industrial needs, including the development of green technologies that support the UN´s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The report offers two key recommendations and a number of policy actions to dramatically reduce tailings dam fatalities and accidents.

The first recommendation: Mining companies should strive for a “zero-failure objective,” superseding economic goals. UNEP cites an expert panel convened in the wake of a major tailings dam failure in British Columbia, Canada, the Mount Polley gold and copper mine, which dumped 24 million cubic meters (more than 31 million cubic yards) of mine waste and sludge into neighboring Lake Polley. The panel concluded that “safety attributes should be evaluated separately from economic considerations, and cost should not be the determining factor.”

The second key UNEP recommendation: Establish a UN environmental stakeholder forum to support stronger international regulations for tailings dams.

Payal Sampat of Earthworks, a US-based NGO, notes: 

“Mine waste storage facilities are like ticking time bombs, putting communities and waterways in harm’s way in the event of catastrophic failure.”

Aftermath of the Samarco tailings dam failure that sent a wall of toxic mud into the village of Bento Rodrigues, Brazil, killing 19 people and contaminating more than 500 miles of the Doce River. The UN report says that many such disasters are preventable if Mining companies strived for a “zero-failure objective,” superseding economic goals. Photo by Romerito Pontes licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

A record of disaster

The UNEP report was prompted by multiple serious accidents occurring around the world over the past decade. It points to China and Canada as the two countries with the worst recent safety record. Canada has had seven accidents since 2011, while China has had eight. Chile registered five separate tailings dam failures in 2010, according to the report, while the U.S. saw five tailings dam accidents over the past decade.

Other countries have experienced disasters and grief. In Minas Gerais state, Brazil, on November 5, 2015, the Fundão dam collapsed releasing 50 million tons of toxic iron tailings into the Doce River – the nation’s worst environmental disaster ever. The dam held back waste from the Germano mine run by Samarco, a joint venture of BHP Biliton and Vale, two of the world´s largest mining firms. Nineteen people died when the slurry engulfed the town of Bento Rodrigues. Survivors fled for their lives to high ground and were left homeless. More than 500 miles of the river was contaminated, all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.

Ugo LaPointe of Mining Watch Canada told DeSmog Canada that these major disasters represent just a portion of the problem: “This is just a glimpse of what we know. A lot of the data is missing. We need an international database of mining spills and mining failures. If you don’t collect that solid data, you are not in the best position to correct the problems.”

Along with increased international regulation of tailings dams, UNEP’s Safety is No Accident report also calls for the establishment of a first-of-its-kind global database of mine sites and tailings storage facilities to facilitate the tracking of dam failures. Research cited from the year 2000, estimates that there are 3,500 tailings dams around the globe, though that figure is likely low considering that there are around 30,000 industrial mines planet-wide. No one knows how many tailings dams there may be, or their current condition.

The UNEP report also calls for financial securities firms to give mining companies an economic incentive to prioritize safety. Suggestions include a global insurance pool, mandatory financial securities for the life of every mine, and a global financial assurance system for mine sites.

La Tortolas tailings dam high in the Andes Mountains of Chile. The dam was built in a seismically active area, but is designed to resist earthquakes. Photo by Lodecop licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Views within the industry

Canada’s mining industry plays a significant and influential role internationally, with 30 Canadian mining companies operating in Brazil, for example. Further, Canadian mining firms were given advance notice earlier this year about the Brazilian government’s plans to open up a vast region in the Amazon to mineral extraction. Canada’s mining sector contributed $56 billion to Canada’s gross domestic product in 2015.

The Mining Association of Canada told DeSmog Canada it would soon be releasing a revised Tailings Guide informed by mine reviews conducted by an independent task force it had assembled.

A spokesperson for the U.S. National Mining Association (NMA) told Mongabay via email that the UNEP report’s recommendations don’t apply to the United States, “where mining is heavily regulated for any releases to the environment and where the only event of this type in recent years was caused not by miners but by a faulty EPA operation in an old legacy mine [Gold King] in Colorado.”

However, a Bureau of Reclamation audit of that spill found that the circumstances “are not isolated or unique, and in fact are surprisingly prevalent” in the United States. The audit also reported that the release was the culmination of events over several decades including an “inadequately designed closure of the mine portal” and misinterpretation of the groundwater conditions when it was reopened in 2014/2015.

Asked whether the NMA plays any role in monitoring U.S.-based companies’ international operations, the spokesperson said that the NMA doesn’t regulate mining operations.

LaPointe emphasized that: “The problem is that the industry is not yet acknowledging publicly that there are too many financially risky, marginal mines that are being permitted.” He maintained that marginally profitable companies and mines are a major part of the problem because they cut corners on safety and don’t have the money to guarantee the safety of people and the environment.

Dry bed of the tailings dam at the Brukunga Pyrite Mine east of Adelaide in the Mount Lofty Ranges, South Australia. The mine was closed in 1972 and this photo comes from 1992. In 1974, a severe storm resulted in the retention ponds overflowing into nearby Dawesley Creek with water quality impacts occurring downstream. Tailings dams continue to be environmental hazards long after mine closures. Photo courtesy of CSIRO ScienceImage licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

“Reducing the number of dams that can fail”

Suzanne Greene, a communications officer for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Metals and Minerals for the Environment group, told Mongabay that a “key element of dam safety is reducing the amount of waste produced by the mine. MIT has a number of technologies under development that will help achieve this, such as low or no-waste extraction and separation.” Greene also pointed to new technologies, such as sensors that can be embedded in dam walls, to monitor and detect cracks or bulges in these structures in real time.

As importantly, some types of dams may need to be abandoned all together. Speaking with Mongabay by phone, Earthworks’ Alan Septoff explained that there are “financial assurances that are intended to do reclamation after a mine completes operations, and financial assurances for when something goes wrong.” But in the case of a disaster as extreme as Brazil’s Fundão disaster, Septoff cited research by Chambers and Bowker which concluded that “it’s essentially impossible for a company to get insurance for this severity.” And logically, if companies can’t get insurance for a particular type of operation because it is too risky, that type of operation will be eliminated, preventing future disasters, and promoting safer methods.

As an example, Septoff points to Canada’s Mount Polley rupture and to the conclusions the review panel produced: “The independent review panel, which was peopled with mining engineers working for industry, said there was no way to insure against ‘wet tailings disposal’ like the kind that failed at Samarco [in Brazil] and that all future tailings storage need to be ‘dry stock.’”

The Mount Polley report added: “The Panel firmly rejects any notion that business as usual can continue.” And also that “The Panel does not accept the concept of a ‘tolerable failure rate’ for tailings dams.” Rejecting the idea of slow incremental change within the industry, the panel concluded: “dam failures are reduced by reducing the number of dams that can fail.”

For Septoff, this conclusion contrasts with most industry rhetoric: “Industry is trying to give the perception that this problem is going to go away, and so people should keep investing, but if the true cost of this type of disposal is made known, then the prospects for responsible investors investing in them will go considerably down.”

A mining tailings dam in the Balkans. Estimates from the year 2000 put the total number of tailings dams globally at 3,500, though there are likely more that have not been counted. With mining operations fast expanding around the globe, more accidents are likely unless action is taken to safeguard tailings dams. Photo courtesy of WWF

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