[caption id="attachment_1003743615" align="aligncenter" width="550"] Tailings from the Feijao iron ore mine shortly after its tailings dam collapsed in January 2019 Credit: Felipe Werneck/Ibama
The Global Tailings Review (GTR) released the first-ever Global Standard on Tailings Management in August. The standard aims to strengthen current best practices around the management of tailings dams in the mining industry, with the goal of zero harm to people and the environment.
“Tailings are generated from mining activities and are usually thickened and then hydraulically pumped to tailings dams, which are often massive structures with some ranking as the largest engineered constructions on Earth, containing hundreds (and in some instances, even thousands) of millions of cubic metres of processed waste,” Adriaan Meintjes, partner and principal geotechnical engineer with SRK Consulting, said in an interview.
Meintjes has over 36 years working on civil and geotechnical engineering projects across the globe and is a world-renowned expert on tailings management.
Tailings dams, he added, require significant engineering input to allow the design, construction, operation, management, closure, and post-closure to be undertaken safely. Should any of these steps not comply with practice requirements, there is a risk the tailings dam can fail, releasing vast amounts of waste and wastewater, with disastrous consequences for nearby communities, the environment, and other stakeholders.
“The most recent and dramatic illustration of a tailings dam failing was in January last year at Vale
’s (NYSE: VALE) Corrego do Feijao iron ore mine in Brazil, which, to date, has killed over 250 people,” Meintjes said.
The catastrophic collapse of the dam prompted the United Nations Environment Programme, the Principles for Responsible Investment, and the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) to convene the GTR.
[caption id="attachment_1003743765" align="alignleft" width="200"] Adriaan Meintjes, partner and principal geotechnical engineer with SRK Consulting Credit: SRK Consulting
According to Bruno Oberle, chair of the GTR, the dam’s failure was a “human and environmental tragedy that demanded decisive and appropriate action to enhance the safety and strengthen the governance of tailings facilities across the globe. I am particularly pleased to deliver a document which reflects and addresses the complexity and multi-disciplinary nature of sound tailings management.”
The review process was supported by a multi-disciplinary expert panel, including input from a multi-stakeholder advisory group and extensive public consultations with communities, government representatives, investors, multilateral organisations, and mining industry stakeholders.
The standard applies to existing and future tailings facilities and covers the entire life cycle from site selection through closure. Mine operators noted the GTR must have “zero tolerance for human fatalities and strive for zero harm to people and the environment from the earliest phases of project conception.”
It is organised around six topic areas, 15 principles, and 77 auditable requirements and aims to prevent catastrophic failure and enhance the safety of mine tailings facilities across the globe and goes beyond existing guidance on the management of tailing facilities addressing crucial issues including:
- meaningful engagement of project-affected people throughout the lifecycle of the mine tailing facility;
- raising the bar on human rights-related requirements;
- strengthening of environmental protection requirements, including stronger attention to the evolving climate change impacts on mine tailing facilities and restoration;
- application of a structured and robust approach to the risk classification of existing and planned facilities;
- establishing a governance mechanism for the management of tailing facilities, as well as identifying high-level responsibility for the implementation of the standard, in direct communication with the board; and
- public disclosure and transparency of information on mine tailing facilities to stakeholders.
To be compliant with the standard, noted the GTR, operators must use “specified measures to prevent the catastrophic failure of tailings facilities and to implement best practices in planning, design, construction, operation, maintenance, monitoring, closure and post-closure activities.”
While the standard is voluntary, ICMM members, which include some of the world’s largest mining companies, must implement the standard’s requirements.
“The standard will be integrated into ICMM’s existing member commitments, which includes third-party assurance and validation, and we are in the process of developing supporting guidance,” said Tom Butler, ICMM’s chief executive. “Members have committed that all facilities with ‘Extreme’ or ‘Very high’ potential consequences will be in conformance with the standard within three years of today, and all other facilities within five years.”
However, for some environmental and community organisations, the industry’s commitment and implementation are some of the more problematic aspects of a standard that they believe doesn’t go far enough to protect people and the environment adequately.
The London Mining Network, a non-governmental organisation based in the United Kingdom, has called for the formation of an independent international tailings dam monitoring body and the introduction of legally enforceable penalties for non-compliance.
“There is now a concerted effort by mining companies worldwide to meet the requirements of the standard,” Meintjes said.
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