Business Maverick

Business Maverick

New global standard launched to address mine tailings dam disasters 

South Africa’s coal sector is becoming increasingly murky, with unlisted companies responsible for a growing share of production. (Illustrative image: Source: Adobe Stock)

In the wake of the collapse of Vale's iron ore tailings facility at Brumadinho, Brazil, on 25 January 2019 that killed 270 people, the global mining industry scrambled to raise the bar on the standards governing the construction, maintenance and oversight of such structures. The new standards were unveiled in London on Wednesday, 5 August. 

The global mining industry produces mountains of waste – witness the mine dumps or slag heaps that ring Johannesburg, the City of Gold. 

Much of this waste winds up in tailings dams, which store the mix of water, minerals and chemicals used in the processing of mineral ore. This toxic blend is known as slurry and when these dams burst, the results can be catastrophic to surrounding communities and the wider environment. The Vale disaster in Brazil was the worst of many to occur in the past decade.

That Brazilian disaster was also it seems a tipping point as it came against the backdrop of growing public and investor concerns about ESGs – environmental, social and governance issues. Investor concerns are especially key in this regard because they get on the radar screen of boardrooms.

“The Standard was developed through an independent process – the Global Tailings Review (GTR) –which was co-convened in March 2019 by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) and International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) following the tragic tailings facility collapse at Brumadinho, Brazil,” the three organisations said in a joint statement.  

“With an ambition of zero harm to people and the environment, the Standard significantly raises the bar for the industry to achieve strong social, environmental and technical outcomes. It elevates accountability to the highest organisational levels and adds new requirements for independent oversight. The Standard also establishes clear expectations around global transparency and disclosure requirements, helping to improve understanding by interested stakeholders,” the statement said.

Among other things, the Standard requires “a human rights due diligence process is required to identify and address those that are most at risk from a tailings facility or its potential failure. To demonstrate this respect, project-affected people must be afforded opportunities for meaningful engagement in decisions that affect them.” 

Other areas include construction, maintenance, preparedness in the event of a disaster, and public disclosure. 

“Following the Brumadinho incident, we had more and more questions from our investors about the safety of our tailings facilities. There was no common set of global standards against which we could be assessed. Now there is an adherence to the new Standard is now a requirement for ICMM membership,” Gold Fields spokesman Sven Lunsche told Business Maverick. Gold Fields helped to formulate the standard. 

 Investors ultimately deploy capital, and capital need not be exploitative or harmful. Watch this space: the mining industry remains crucial to the global economy and slowly but surely, it is cleaning up its act. DM/BM


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