New global industry standard on mine tailings aims for zero harm

UN joins forces with world mining industry to set safety protocol

Sydney’s UNESCO Professor of Marine Science Elaine Baker is a member of the international advisory panel that oversaw the development of the new protocols.

UNESCO Professor for Marine Science Elaine Baker.,UNESCO Professor for Marine Science Elaine Baker.
UNESCO Professor for Marine Science Elaine Baker.

The International Council on Mining and Minerals and the United Nations Environment Program today has launched global standards for the safe management of mine tailings. The historic agreement to lay out a set of industry protocols comes 18 months after the tailings dam disaster at the Corrego do Feijão mine in Brazil that killed 270 people.

The UN and mining industry were joined by the peak body for responsible investment, the Principles of Responsible Investment, to undertake the Global Tailings Review. These three co-convenors represent government, industry and investor stakeholders.

UNESCO Professor of Marine Science Elaine Baker from the School of Geosciences and GRID-Arendal at the University of Sydney is member of the international advisory panel that oversaw the development of the new protocols.

“These dams are some of the largest human-made structures on the planet and require careful ongoing management,” Professor Baker said. “While large-scale failures of tailings dams are uncommon, when they do occur, they can be catastrophic for downstream communities and the environment.”

The more than one-year process has resulted in the development of a revolutionary global standard for the management of new and existing mine tailings facilities.

Mine tailings are material that remains after the commercially viable resources have been removed in the mining process. This material is commonly stored as a slurry in dams.

The aim of the Global Tailings Review was to establish an industry standard that could eliminate tailings dam failures. The reasons for these failures are well understood, so the task of the review was to establish a standard that would ensure mine operators applied best practices in planning, design, construction, operation, maintenance, monitoring, closure and post-closure of tailings facilities.

“The differences between the global standard and many existing standards for tailings dam management include provisions for greater consultation from the outset with potentially affected communities,” Professor Baker said.

Ligia Noronha, Director of the UNEP Economy Division, said: “The Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management is an important milestone towards the ambition of zero harm to people and the environment from tailings facilities.”

The Corrego do Feijåo tailings dam burst in Brumadinho, Brazil, on 25 January 2019, killing 270 people. Photo: IDF,
The Corrego do Feijåo tailings dam burst in Brumadinho, Brazil, on 25 January 2019, killing 270 people. Photo: IDF

The standard will strengthen current practices in the mining industry by integrating social, environmental, local economic and technical considerations. The new standard covers the entire tailings facility lifecycle – from site selection, design and construction, management and monitoring, through to closure and post-closure.

“It also includes increased independent engineering oversight at all stages of tailings management; more transparent mine operator accountability; increased public access to consequence of failure information; and an increased standard of reporting,” Professor Baker said. “These initiatives represent a system-wide change in tailings management.”

Professor Baker has been also been involved in concurrent activities, including PRI’s Mining Tailings and Safety Initiative. This has resulted in the first global database based on mining company disclosures of tailings dam information. Originally compiled for the investor community, it is envisaged that the database will provide an essential tool in the monitoring of company compliance with the standard.