Yet another mine failure has caused yet another disastrous spill — this time with fatalities.
We've documented recent mine waste spills, which seem to be occurring with troubling regularity. But this latest catastrophe, in which two tailings dams burst in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, is particularly disturbing. Officials have confirmed that three people have died from the spill, and 28 are still missing. Hundreds of people have also been evacuated from the area. What's more, the Germano iron ore mine that operated the dams is co-owned by two of the world’s largest mining companies, Brazilian Vale SA and Anglo-Australian BHP Billiton.
This spill has engulfed a village, with waste mud filling houses and ripping off roofs. Officials are still evaluating the extent of the damage — and investors are too. Brazil has cancelled the mine license for Samarco, the company operating the mine. It will be shut down for years and incur cleanup costs that are estimated to be US$1 billion.
For the rest of the world, the cascading frequency of spills may just be the beginning. A study released after the Mount Polley spill last year concluded that catastrophic mine waste failures are increasing in frequency and severity and will continue to do so until regulators and mining companies take active steps to prevent them.
The report, The Risk, Public Liability & Economics of Tailings Storage Facility Failure [PDF], which was released by Bowker Associates Science & Research In The Public Interest and the Center for Science in Public Participation, examined 100 years of tailings dam failures and found an “emerging and pronounced trend” toward more serious failures with greater consequences.
While industry often touts the progress in safety made by so-called “modern mining,” the report’s co-author, mining expert David Chambers, argues it is precisely these new technologies, deployed in the absence of robust regulation, that fosters this disturbing trend of more severe tailings failures. Chambers, who directs the Center of Science in Public Participation, says that technological advances have allowed companies to mine deposits with increasingly miniscule amounts of metals. This newly affordable extraction is profitable for the company, but generates even more waste than the extraction of higher-grade ore. More waste means more dams will overflow with toxic waste, increasing the probability of accidents like the Brazil spill.
The mine spill in Brazil reinforces a point we've been making for a long time: Higher standards and greater regulation of mine waste facilities (tailings dams in industry parlance) are essential to prevent future disasters. Self-policing isn’t enough, and leaves communities bearing the burden when things go wrong – in some cases with their lives.
There are thousands of mine waste dams around the world that must stand in perpetuity. Yet there is no federal agency in the U.S. or global entity responsible for oversight of mining waste tailings dam safety.
Earthworks, along with other civil society organizations around the world, have urged the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), as well as the U.S. and Canadian governments, to address the threats mine waste dams pose. If the Mount Polley disaster did not serve as a wake-up call to governments and the industry, the Brazil mine spill must.