Tag Archives: tailings dam

Australian-based company’s PNG mine could pose big environmental risk

The Sepik river in Papua New Guinea. Serious environmental and social concerns are being raised about a mining project by Australian-based company PanAust. Photograph: Emmanuel Peni

Gold and copper project for Sepik region also has potential to cause social conflict and unrest, report says

Lisa Martin | The Guardian | 15 June 2019 

A gold and copper mine proposed for the Sepik region in Papua New Guinea by an Australian-based company threatens to destroy the health of a major river system, poison fish stocks and cause violent unrest, a report has found.

The Chinese-owned company, PanAust, says the Frieda river project could have a 45-year life span and generate A$12.45bn in tax, royalties and production levies for the PNG government and landholders.

But the report, from research centre Jubilee Australia and Project Sepik, raises serious environmental and social concerns about the mine.

“The lack of information released by the company about its environmental management plans are continuing to cause uncertainty about whether the company’s environmental management plans will be fit for purpose,” it says.

“The potential for this project to lead to damaging social conflict and unrest is real and must be taken seriously.”

Papua New Guinea has a chequered mining history, including an environmental disaster when the BHP Ok Tedi copper mine’s tailings dam failed and the decade-long civil war on Bougainville, which was triggered by the Rio Tinto majority-owned Panguna copper mine and cost an estimated 20,000 lives.

The report notes that one of the PanAust project’s biggest challenges will be building a safe storage facility for the mine’s tailings (waste material left over after separating the valuable mineral from the ore) to prevent acid rock drainage.

That occurs when mine waste is exposed to oxygen and produces sulphuric acid, which dissolves heavy metals such as mercury from nearby rocks, which can then leach into rivers.

The report says the size of the ore body, combined with the relatively low grade of copper in the deposit, means the mine will generate substantial tailings.

Locals protest against the proposed mine project at the Sepik river in Papua New Guinea. Photograph: Project Sepik

“The inaccessibility of the terrain will pose challenges when it comes to finding a large enough site or sites for storage,” it says.

“The extremely high rainfall in the area and the fact that the area is a site of seismic activity add to the risks of a dam collapse. The technical complexity of the feat facing the mining engineers, the extremely large costs involved, and the weather and seismic situation all adds up to a very expensive environmental management problem and one with considerable risks.”

Locals also have concerns about environmental damage from an increase in the number of large vessels operating on the Freida river.

PanAust promised in April it would shortly release an environmental impact statement to nearby villages, but researchers say it has not done so.

In response to to questions from Guardian Australia, the company said PanAust had not received a copy of the Jubilee report and “as such, the company is not in a position to comment on its contents”.

It did however say that PanAust had submitted its plans and an environmental impact statement to PNG regulators and was working with them on its approval.

The report also accused PanAust of a flawed consultation process with indigenous communities downstream from the mine which has created an “atmosphere of animosity and lack of trust” and resulted in acts of sabotage.

“There are reports of official (mainly police) intimidation of anti-mine activists,” the report says.

Map showing the location of the proposed Frieda River mine. Photograph: Jubilee Australia

“In 2017 a youth leader from Oum 2 village led a group of young men to attack a tugboat and pontoon with homemade wire sling shots.”

In October researchers visited 23 nearby villages, where locals repeatedly raised concerns about river and fish health as a result of increased sedimentation from increased tugboat traffic connected with the project.

The Freida river joins the 1,126km Sepik river, which flows across the provinces of West Sepik and East Sepik provinces.

The local economy is built on the sale of sago (starch from a tropical palm stem), fish, freshwater prawn, eels, turtles and crocodile eggs. Crocodiles are also harvested for their skins and teeth. Locals are worried about the mine affecting their food security, the report says.

In a company announcement in December, PanAust characterised the mine project as a “nation building development”.

It has promised 5,000 jobs in construction and 2,100 in mining, and estimates there may be 30,000 more indirect jobs.

“Host communities, especially in rural areas, will benefit from access to improved transport, telecommunications, health, education and government services that will support a higher quality of life and greater social participation,” the company said.

“More broadly, training and employment of Papua New Guineans will provide the skills and capacity to support the nation’s future development and prosperity.”

The company said a final investment decision would be linked to financing and fiscal terms agreed with the PNG government during the approvals phase.

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Safety first: Investors take action on mine tailings disasters

A rescue worker walks between destroyed houses after another dam disaster in Brazil.

Payal Sampat | EarthWorks | June 12, 2019

In late January 2019, the collapse of two tailings dams at Vale’s Brumadinho iron ore mine in Brazil killed hundreds of workers and local residents in the state of Minas Gerais. Even more horrifying, the Brumadinho catastrophe was a tragedy foretold, with unheeded prior warnings from mine inspectors and Vale’s own workers. This disaster came on the heels of other tailings disasters, notably at the Mount Polley gold and copper mine in Canada and the BHP-Vale owned Samarco iron ore mine in Mariana, Brazil.

How did one of the world’s largest mining companies, Vale, ignore the risks identified by workers and mine inspectors, and fail to learn from its previous tailings disaster?  How many more ticking time bombs around the world are endangering communities, workers, and ecosystems at this very moment?

Independent research that analyzes decades of data on mine waste dam failures has shown that these catastrophic tailings dam failures are occurring more frequently and are predicted to continue to increase in frequency. This is attributed to multiple factors, including inadequate tailings facilities design, age of facilities, unanticipated weather conditions due to climate change, and mining companies tapping lower grade ores, resulting in larger volumes of mine waste.

And yet, very little is known about these tailings storage facilities (TSFs) – their location, size, scale, ownership, even how many exist around the world.

This is about to change.

In April 2019, the Church of England pension funds and the Swedish Council of Ethics, representing a group of 96 investors with over $10 trillion in assets, launched the Investor Mining & Tailings Safety Initiative.  They sent letters to 683 mining companies, asking detailed questions about ownership, operating status, physical size, construction and independent risk assessment at their TSFs. These companies were given 45 days to respond, and were required to post this information publicly on their websites.

This is the first time that investors have demanded transparency and disclosure of mining companies on this scale – and this may well be the game-changing move that’s needed to understand and mitigate risks at TSFs.

The investor action has lit a fire under some of the world’s largest mining companies, many of whom have swiftly responded, publishing their disclosures to meet the June 7 deadline.  The Swiss mining company Glencore’s disclosure indicated that 14 of its facilities carry “extreme risk” in the event of failure – many in Peru – and another 100 are considered high-risk. Australian miner BHP, the world’s largest mining company, disclosed that five of its tailings dams were at “extreme consequence of failure,” and has set up a tailings task force to improve safety.

In May, the investor group, Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI), took another important action. PRI, along with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which published a rapid response assessment on tailings dam safety in 2017,  and the International Council on Mining and Metals, an association of 26 of the world’s largest mining companies, launched a Global Tailings Review process. At UNEP’s invitation, Earthworks agreed to serve on the multi-stakeholder advisory panel to the Global Tailings Review, which is chaired by Professor Bruno Oberle, former Swiss Secretary of State for the Environment. Other advisory panel members include IndustriALL Global Union, Munich Re, the International Finance Corporation, and the Columbia University Water Center.

Earthworks believes that the strongest outcomes will result from a process co-governed by civil society members, particularly mining-affected communities and workers representatives. We support processes that embody this commitment to co-equal governance, such as the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA). But this is an all hands-on-deck moment – and we will willingly pitch in to advance efforts that will shore up tailings dam safety, increase transparency, and protect people and the environment.

The world can no longer bear the costs of dragging feet, making excuses, or putting shareholder returns before people’s lives. Without exception, safety must be the leading priority at tailings dams and storage facilities around the world. Mining companies must act on the findings of their TSF reviews and ensure that risks to communities, workers and ecosystems are mitigated and managed as soon as possible.

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BHP reveals five ‘world class’ mine dams at ‘extreme’ risk of causing damage and loss of life

The collapse of a dam co-owned by BHP in the Minas Gerais region of Brazil in November 2015 killed 19 people. Photograph: Ricardo Moraes/Reuters

Company says rating reflects potential extent of damage in event of collapse

Sandra Laville | The Guardian | 7 June 2019 

Five dams used to store mining waste are at “extreme” risk of causing environmental damage if they fail, according to a review by BHP, the world’s biggest mining company.

BHP said in a presentation on Friday that four tailings dams in Australia and one in the US were ranked at the highest level of risk, and had the potential to cause serious damage to the local environment and cause scores of deaths in the case of a collapse.

The company revealed the results of a risk assessment into its dams after two high-profile fatal dam failures in Brazil that collectively killed hundreds of people.

In a presentation to investors, the mining company said 16 of its 67 tailings dams which hold mining byproducts were “high risk”. The risk relates to the damage which would be caused to the environment and to human life if they collapsed.

The company said the “extreme risk” rating given to five of its dams means more than 100 people would be killed and there would be major environmental and economic and structural damage.

In 2015 a dam in Brazil, which was being run with BHP in a joint venture, collapsed killing 19 people and devastating the local environment.

The company said it had a range of controls to manage the risk, including surveillance and monitoring. BHP said in its presentation: “The dam risk review identified no immediate concerns regarding dam integrity. Subsequently we have undertaken dam safety reviews which provide assurance statements on dam integrity.”

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Another Brazil dam in danger of collapse, mining company warns

FILE PHOTO: A member of a rescue team walks next to a collapsed tailings dam owned by Brazilian mining company Vale SA, in Brumadinho, Brazil February 13, 2019. REUTERS/Washington Alves

Diane Jeantet | Associated Press | March 24, 2019

Brazilian mining giant Vale announced communities in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais have been ordered to evacuate after independent auditors found one of its dams could collapse at any moment.

On Friday, the company raised the level of risk at a mining waste dam in the city of Barao de Cocais to three, the highest grade. According to Brazil’s mining and energy secretary, level three means that “a rupture is imminent or already happening.”

Residents within a 6-mile perimeter of the dam had already been told to leave by state authorities in February after Vale raised risk levels to grade two, a company spokesperson told the Associated Press. The spokesperson, who asked not to be identified, said 442 people had been relocated to temporary housing or with family members since February.

Lt. Col. Flavio Godinho, of the state’s civil defense department, told reporters that authorities are studying the Barao de Cocais structure to review the existing contingency plan.

“Any activity at the dam could trigger a rupture,” Godinho said on Globo TV.

The news comes nearly two months after another Vale-operated dam in the nearby city of Brumadinho collapsed, unleashing a wave of toxic mud that contaminated rivers and killed about 300 people.

The contamination of rivers with mining waste, or tailings, which contain high levels of iron-ore and other metals is of great concern and can last for years or even decades, experts say.

Brazilian environmental group SOS Mata Atlantica said it had proof of water contamination in the large Sao Francisco river as a result of the Brumadinho dam collapse. Hundreds of municipalities and larger cities such as Petrolina, 870 miles from Brumadinho, get drinking water from the Sao Francisco.

Brazil’s National Water Agency, which is carrying out its own water tests, denied further contamination of the Sao Francisco river, according to Globo’s news portal G1.

The type of structure used to hold back mining waste in Brumadinho was the same as the one currently in use in Barao de Cocais, which lies about 93 miles away.

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Brazil bans upstream mining dams after deadly Vale disaster

FILE PHOTO: A member of a rescue team walks next to a collapsed tailings dam owned by Brazilian mining company Vale SA, in Brumadinho, Brazil February 13, 2019. Picture taken February 13, 2019. REUTERS/Washington Alves/File Photo

Marta Nogueira | Reuters | 20 February 2019

Brazil’s government on Monday banned new upstream mining dams and ordered the decommissioning of all such dams by 2021, targeting the type of structure that burst last month in the town of Brumadinho, killing hundreds of people.

Those dams, which hold mining byproducts, are cheaper to build but present higher security risks because their walls are constructed over a base of muddy mining waste rather than on solid ground.

In January, one such dam operated by miner Vale SA, the world’s largest iron ore miner, collapsed, unleashing a wave of mud that bulldozed nearby structures and has likely killed more than 300 people.

The move by Brazil’s mining regulator, which would impact some 50 upstream mining dams in Brazil’s mining heartland of Minas Gerais state alone, is the strongest governmental response yet to the disaster.

The new regulation orders mining companies to present independently-produced decommission plans by August and ensure that those plans are executed by 2021.

The death toll rose to 169 people as of Sunday night, with 141 people yet to be located.

Several mid-level company executives have been arrested in the wake of the disaster, which comes less than four years after a similar deadly collapse at another upstream dam co-owned by Vale and BHP Group.

While Vale has said it considered the Brumadinho dam to be safe, an October 2018 report showed that the company classified the dam as being two times more likely to fail than the maximum level of risk tolerated under internal guidelines.

Around 200 residents were evacuated from an area near another dam operated by Vale late on Saturday, amid fears that it was structurally weak and could also collapse.

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The human cost of globalization

Barzil’s latest mining tragedy should be a wake-up call for citizens at both ends of the supply chain. Photograph: Douglas Magno/AFP/Getty Images

Eric Silverman | Metro West | 17 February 2019

Last month, a massive dam holding back a lake of waste from an iron ore mine collapsed in rural Brazil. The exact toll from the tsunami of metallic sludge is still unknown. At least 130 are confirmed dead but, as one elderly woman said, “It’s easier to count the living.” Hundreds remain missing. Some bodies will likely never be exhumed from the muck. Surely you heard about the disaster, expressed momentary horror, then went about your daily life as if such matters did not concern you. They do.

Like it or not, your hand – all of our hands – helped breach that dam. Those who benefit most from the global economy have equally global moral responsibility.

If you’re reading this newspaper in Massachusetts, glance outside your window. See any mines? Count yourself lucky. The largest such chasm in Boston was the Big Hole formerly occupied by Filene’s Basement. Actually, we’re not lucky at all, just rich. Most of us in MetroWest don’t want mining. We prefer other, far safer jobs, never mind backyards unblighted by large-scale resource extraction. And we have the affluence and power to make corporate and government leaders take heed. Not so the poor souls recently entombed in the mud.

Most Americans look to nature for rest and relaxation. We sojourn in the forest, like Thoreau, to “learn what it had to teach.” Others sell their woods and hills to survive. It is far better to be on the buying end of consumerism than the giving end of iron ore and other raw materials. Just ask the people of Vila Ferteco, the community downstream from the shattered dam.

Or ask anybody at the fringes of the world system. I know some of them well, having lived and studied as an anthropologist in a community along the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea. They have little political voice, less money, and no position of privilege that would cause corporate directors or public officials to take notice. That’s why their society is at risk from one of the largest gold and copper deposits in the Asia-Pacific region, the Frieda River mine, now under development by an Australian company, PanAust, which is a subsidiary of a Chinese government entity. Many people along the Sepik River are speaking out against this mine. Few seem to care or listen, especially shareholders and consumers on the other side of the world who will someday reap the lion’s share of the mine’s benefits.

There are few opportunities for a paycheck in the developing world, never mind a job that would pass muster by the workplace safety regulations that protect your own labor. More than 750 million people, mostly in the Global South, have less than a $1.90 a day in their pockets. What they have, however, are the natural resources – minerals, timber, oil, and gas – that are fed to factories in Nigeria, India, and Guangzhou, then shipped as the myriad products that arrive by Amazon on our doorsteps. It’s not so far from Bangladesh or Brumadinho to the local mall.

Nobody gives up their land because they find pleasure in open-pit mining. They do so because they have as much choice in the matter as they do clout in the boardroom or parliament. Corporations know this well, and so do as they please in distant places beneath the palm trees, at least those that remain standing after clearcutting for palm oil plantations. The end result is what just happened in Brazil.

The Global South is the resource Wal-Mart for the industrialized world, only with worse wages and no health care benefits.

The poisonous sludge that murdered a town last week came from a mine owned by a Brazilian company, Vale SA. The same firm, together with the Anglo-Australian giant BHP Billiton, owned another Brazilian mine where a collapsed dam killed more than a dozen in 2015. BHP Billiton once operated the Ok Tedi Mine in Papua New Guinea that discharged 90 million tons of waste into the local river system – about 500 square miles – for more than a decade. Half the river, reported The Australian Conservation Foundation, was “almost biologically dead.” The cultural survival of its indigenous communities remains at risk. Across the border in the Indonesian province of Papua, the U.S.-based company Freeport-McMoRan runs the world’s most profitable gold mine. Some of those profits, reported by The New York Times, went into the pockets of military and police officials to ‘secure’ the site.

Needless to say, major Western banks and investment firms, such as Vanguard, Blackrock, State Street, Fidelity, Citicorp, Bank of America, and John Hancock, pour assets into these mines, maybe even some of your own retirement funds, just as the mines pour their toxic waste down nearby hills and waterways.

There is no shortage of blame. Corrupt politicians. Greedy Wall Street financiers. Multinational corporations and the glossy PR firms they hire to promote ‘global citizenship.’ But most of the blame rests with you and I – everyday people content with our own lives and things, and thus unwilling to consider the human cost of globalization and to demand a more ethical capitalism. It’s time we did. Before another town in a far-flung place most of us can’t find on a map is buried beneath indifference.

Eric Silverman, a former Research Professor of Anthropology, lives in Framingham. He is now affiliated with the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandies University.

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Half of the world’s biggest miners do not keep track of their tailings risk management measures -report

Brumadinho, where Vale SA’s dam collapsed. Photo Jeso Carneiro | Flickr.

Valentina Ruiz Leotaud | Mining.com | 11 February 2018

Following last month’s tailings dam disaster at Vale’s Córrego do Feijão mining complex, which left at least 140 dead, Amsterdam-based Responsible Mining Foundation issued a statement highlighting the findings of its 2018 Responsible Mining Index report related to miners’ tailing dams.

According to the report, many of the world’s largest mining companies are not able to ‘know and show’ how effectively they are addressing the risks of tailings dam failure and seepage.

“The 30 mining companies assessed in RMI 2018 scored an average of only 22% on tracking, reviewing and acting to improve their tailings risk management, with Vale scoring slightly above average. Fifteen of the 30 companies showed no evidence of keeping track of how effectively they are addressing these risks. And while 17 companies showed some sign of reviewing the effectiveness of their tailings risk management measures, no evidence was found of any of these companies publicly disclosing the extent to which they have taken systematic action on the basis of these reviews, to improve how they address tailings-related risks,” the document reads.

The RMF states that the deficiencies many miners show when it comes to sharing information is not limited to their tailings dams. In general, the organization’s study found that most companies fail to adequately share information on how they are managing social and environmental risks. In particular, they fail to provide meaningful site-level performance information.

“Too often, workers, mining-affected communities, governments and investors are kept in the dark about the risks involved and how well companies are addressing these risks. Companies may be reticent to publicly reveal this potentially detrimental and sensitive information, yet it is workers and communities whose lives and livelihoods depend on adequate protection measures being in place,” the report reads.

The Responsible Mining Foundation is convinced that public disclosure would not only save thousands of lives but would also improve the safety of mining projects by allowing for the expert advice of the community which, in turn, would result in improved knowledge of the terrain.

Based on a 2001 report by the International Commission on Large Dams which found that 221 tailings dam failures could have been prevented, the RMF states that by really incorporating the input of all stakeholders in the design, planning and building phases of their projects, miners can learn to refrain from mining in areas where tailings dam failures are most likely to happen and achieve a shared zero-failure objective to tailings storage facilities.

The foundation’s research, on the other hand, has shown that failure risks are greatest for large, steep and old tailings dams in tropical zones where seismic activity and extreme weather events can precipitate dam collapses.

In the case of Vale’s facility, the RMF explained that it was built as part of a series of dams constructed upstream from the original dyke, which makes it the most likely type of tailings dam to fail.

“Vale has now committed to decommissioning all dams built by the upstream method and other companies can clearly follow suit,” the NGO suggested.

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