Brumadinho failure reverberates across the industry
In fall 2017, a report on mining tailings facilities by the United Nations and sustainability group GRID-Arendal counted 341 people that had been killed since 2008 by tailings dam failures.
On Jan. 25 this year, a tailings dam at Vale’s Feijao mine, near Brumadinho, in Minas Gerais state, Brazil, gave way. The one incident nearly doubled the death count from the tailings report, killing more than 300. (Only 206 deaths have been confirmed to date, but another 102 people are still missing.)
Less than a month after the breach, the Brazilian government announced a ban on tailings dams constructed with the “upstream” method. Both the Brumadinho failure and the 2015 Fundao failure in Brazil involved upstream dams, which are considered less stable than other types of dams.
Following the Fundao failure, Vale had committed to decommissioning all 19 of its upstream tailings dams in Brazil – all of which were inactive.
Nine had been decommissioned when the Brumadinho failure took place.
Four days after the Brumadinho disaster, Vale announced it would be speeding up the decommissioning of its 10 remaining upstream tailings dams over the next three years at a cost of $1.8 billion. The company will need to temporarily halt production at the operations where the dams are located, affecting up to 40 million tons of iron ore per year.
While there have been reports that Vale had been aware of a greater than acceptable risk of collapse at Brumadinho, the company has denied that there was any warning of an imminent risk of failure.
Beyond Brazil, the global mining industry’s reaction to the tragedy has been swift.
Shock at the devastation and loss of life, and the fact that it followed so closely after Fundao (2015) and Mount Polley (2014), has propelled industry associations, professionals and mining companies to come together to formulate a solution.
The International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) has convened an independent review aimed at creating a set of international standards by the end of this year (see Page 20).
The standards will include a consequence-based tailings facility classification system with requirements for each level of classification; a system for credible, independent reviews of tailings facilities; and requirements for emergency planning and preparedness.
The idea is to have a consistent system that will be applied by ICMM members wherever they have operations, irrespective of the national requirements.
It is an encouraging first step to addressing an urgent problem that lies at the heart of the industry’s ability to earn a social licence, attract younger workers, and of course, its financial viability.