UN Body Urges Mining Companies To Put Safety First
New UNEP report “Mine Tailings Storage: Safety Is No Accident” finds mining waste dams threaten people and the environment
Earthworks, MiningWatch, Amnesty, London Mining Network | 23 October 2017
An international coalition of non-governmental organizations welcomes the new Assessment Report Summary released last week in Geneva by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which urges States and the industry to end deadly and damaging mining waste spills by enforcing a “zero-failure objective.”
The joint UNEP-GRID Arendal assessment, “Mine Tailings Storage: Safety Is No Accident,” highlights over 40 mining waste failures over the last decade, including eight ‘significant’ spills since 2014 alone. These failures have killed some 341 people since 2008, damaged hundreds of kilometers of waterways, affected drinking water sources, and jeopardized the livelihoods of many communities.
The report was prompted, the authors write, by mining waste “disasters and rising global concerns about the safety, management and impacts of storing and managing large volumes of mine tailings.” They cite examples such as the Ajka-Kolontár operation in Hungary in 2010 (MAL Hungarian Aluminium), the Mount Polley disaster in Canada in 2014 (Imperial Metals), the Buena Vista Del Cobre spill in Mexico in 2014 (Grupo Mexico), the massive Samarco dam breach in Brazil in 2015 (Vale and BHP Billiton), and the very recent Tonglvshan Mine spill in China in 2017 (China Daye Ltd.).
UNEP and GRID-Arendal point to thousands of mining waste dams worldwide that pose a potential threat to people and the environment located downstream, noting that: “The increasing number and size of tailings dams around the globe magnifies the potential environmental, social and economic cost of catastrophic failure impact and the risks and costs of perpetual management. These risks present a challenge for this generation, and if not addressed now, a debt we will leave to future generations.” — UNEP-GRID Arendal Assessment Report Summary, October 2017
The summary report makes 18 recommendations, including two overarching ones:
- “The approach to tailings storage facilities must place safety first by making environmental and human safety a priority in management actions and on-the-ground operations. Regulators, industry and communities should adopt a shared zero-failure objective to tailings storage facilities where ‘safety attributes should be evaluated separately from economic considerations, and cost should not be the determining factor’ (Mount Polley expert panel, 2015, p. 125)”
- “Establish a UN Environment stakeholder forum to facilitate international strengthening of tailings dam regulation.”
Other recommendations include:
- Transparency: “Establish an accessible public-interest, global database of mine sites, tailings storage facilities and research” and “Fund research into mine tailings storage failures and management of active, inactive and abandoned mine sites.”
- Accountability: “Expand mining regulations to include independent monitoring and the enforcement of financial and criminal sanctions for non-compliance.”
- Best Practices: “Avoid dam construction methods known to be high risk,” and “require detailed and ongoing evaluations of potential failure modes, residual risks and perpetual management costs of tailings storage facilities.”
- Financial Securities: “Enforce mandatory financial securities for life of the mine;” “establish a global financial assurance system for mine-sites,” and “fund a global insurance pool.” Also, “ensure any project assessment or expansion publishes all externalized costs, with an independent life-of-mine sustainability cost-benefit analysis.”
The undersigned organizations support the UNEP recommendations and urge all UN member States and governments to implement them swiftly in collaboration with all concerned, including non-governmental organizations and affected communities.
The UNEP-GRID-Arendal summary report and recommendations are available here.
“Mine waste storage facilities are like ticking time bombs, putting communities and waterways in harm’s way in the event of catastrophic failure. Even after the Mount Polley and Samarco disasters, which should have served as urgent wake-up calls, governments and companies have done far too little to prevent future disasters. Mining trade associations have tried to create the impression for regulators and investors that mining waste containment failure has been addressed, when that is far from accurate. We welcome the independent assessment by UNEP and urge companies and governments to act on these recommendations.” Payal Sampat, Earthworks
“Catastrophic mining waste failures are on the rise worldwide and on all continents. These environmental disasters indiscriminately hit developed and developing countries alike, and clearly appear to be driven by financial factors, not technical ones. This timely and much needed UNEP assessment should act as wake-up call for all States involved in regulating the mining industry. Safety must come before costs.” Ugo Lapointe, MiningWatch Canada
“We believe the recommendations from this UNEP summary report pose a serious challenge to mining companies to improve the rigour of their management of tailings facilities. Last week, we quoted the report in a challenge to the BHP Board in their London AGM to explain how they would ensure their responsibility for rigorous waste management. Their lack of a clear answer demonstrates how far these companies still need to go.” Richard Harkinson, London Mining Network
“The long-reaching human rights impacts of catastrophic dam failures must not be underestimated. Indigenous peoples and marginalized communities around the globe face enormous uphill struggles for justice and accountability in the wake of mining disasters. Companies must not be permitted to short-cut their human rights responsibilities for the sake of cost, nor governments abdicate their human rights obligations when approving and regulating tailings storage facilities. The UNEP assessment is a welcome acknowledgement of the importance of tailings storage safety in the protection of human rights. “ Tara Scurr, Amnesty International Canada