Business Maverick


International Council unveils roadmap for reducing potentially hazardous mine tailings waste

International Council unveils roadmap for reducing potentially hazardous mine tailings waste
Destroyed houses during the National Council of Province in the Free State oversight visit to Jagersfontein to give feedback on the assessment of the dam wall disaster on 21 September 2022 in Bloemfontein, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Volksblad / Mlungisi Louw)

The International Council on Mining and Metals unveiled a Tailings Reduction Roadmap on Thursday. Coming in the wake of the Jagersfontein tailings dam tragedy in the Free State, it underscores the work the industry has been doing to clean up its act on this hazardous front. This is crucial because demand for the metals needed for the green energy transition is set to explode.

Jagersfontein has grabbed the local headlines of late, but the global tailings wake-up call reverberated loudly in January 2019 when a waste dam at the Córrego do Feijão iron ore mine in Brazil, owned by miner Vale, collapsed, killing 270 people.  

That disaster prompted calls from investors including the Church of England Pensions Board and the Swedish Council on Ethics for mining companies to make public details of their tailings facilities and efforts to avert similar disasters. They had the backing of the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI), which groups so-called ESG investors overseeing about $120-trillion worth of assets under management.  

Just before that, in late 2018, CEOs of International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) member companies had agreed to work over the next 10 to 15 years to address the challenges around tailings dams to prevent catastrophes.  

The upshot has been a concerted effort to improve the engineering of such facilities and to reduce the amount of waste generated by the mining sector — waste of an often toxic nature which winds up in tailings dams meant to contain it. The roadmap unveiled on Thursday by the ICMM is one of several initiatives aimed at tackling this complex issue.   

Trail of destruction after Free State diamond mine dam burst leaves destitute residents in shock and searching for relatives

“Catastrophic tailings failures in recent years, including at South Africa’s Jagersfontein mine just last week, have brought into sharp focus the need for urgent action to produce less tailings as we supply the metals and minerals that are critical for the energy transition and sustainable development,” said ICMM CEO Rohitesh Dhawan.  

“If we continue to use traditional production processes, we run the risk of multiplying tailings waste many times over. There is no easy solution, and we will continue to need tailings storage facilities into the future. However, this initiative signals our clear intent to act with urgency and purpose to find ways of minimising or potentially eliminating waste at every stage of the mining cycle.” 

The ICMM said the initiative was being driven by a third of the global mining and metals industry, which is working with tech companies and academics “to accelerate technology for reducing tailings waste and to explore the potential to eliminate it in the long term”. 

This is highly technical territory. It includes developments in “coarse particle flotation technology, which enhances the recovery of coarser particles of ore that have traditionally been seen as waste”. 

The roadmap says other areas include “precision geology” to maximise the ore mined and minimise the waste rock extracted in the process. Creating value from tailings is another option — if it has value, it’s no longer waste.  

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There is also a Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management, and the ICMM says that 79 companies, including its 26 members, have signed up to it.  

For the record, Jagersfontein Developments, the unlisted company that owns the diamond mine that was the scene of the Free State tailings disaster that killed one person and displaced hundreds, is not an ICMM or Minerals Council South Africa member and not part of this initiative. Companies that have signed up are generally publicly listed and/or are members of councils that at least on paper hold their members to certain standards of health, safety and transparency.  

Getting this right is crucial because while mining may be a declining industry in South Africa, the sun is hardly setting on it on a global scale. Indeed, as the world economy moves from the fossil fuels linked to climate change to green energy sources and technologies, demand for a range of metals needed to drive this transition is set to soar.  

Jagersfontein dam disaster highlights transparency, ESG issues

“The drive to produce the clean energy technologies that are required to achieve global climate goals will also significantly increase demand for critical minerals. But these materials must be responsibly sourced and produced. 

“The International Energy Agency has estimated that, by 2040, there could be a twentyfold increase in demand for nickel and cobalt, as well as a sixfold increase in demand for copper to meet the needs of an increasingly electrified world,” the ICMM roadmap says.  

“With increased demand and supply of metals and minerals comes the challenge of extracting greater value from low-grade deposits, mining deeper ore bodies and increased mineralogical complexity, all of which have the potential to lead to increased tailings production,” it said.  

Hopefully, this and other initiatives will bear fruit, reducing the risk of tragedies like the one that just befell Jagersfontein. DM/BM


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