Brumadinho shocked investors
The failure at Vale’s Brumadinho tailings dam in January of 2019 — the company’s second such catastrophe — sent shockwaves through the international community.
In response, a group of 112 investors controlling $14 trillion in assets, led by the Church of England’s pension fund wrote to 727 mining companies demanding they publicly disclose their tailings dam failure risks. This is the first time investors had demanded transparency and disclosure from mining companies on this scale.
339 companies responded, including 45 of the top 50 mining companies which represent 83% of the mining industry capitalization, and voluntarily disclosed information on their tailing dams, as of August 2020. The investors have compiled the data in a searchable database and posted a list of whether, or not, a company disclosed its information.
Following the Brumadinho collapse, the Church of England, along with other investor groups, divested from Vale. Adam Matthews, director of ethics and engagement at the church’s pension board, said the church is willing to use disinvestment on both financial and ethical grounds. More recently, Danish investing firm ATP blacklisted the Mexican mining giant, Grupo México, after multiple unsuccessful efforts to engage with the firm over dangers posed by a new tailings dam at the site of a disastrous toxic spill in 2014.
The Global Tailings Review
Even though civil society groups, like Earthworks, had been calling for independent review of tailings standards for years, it wasn’t until March of 2019, three months after the Brumadinho disaster, that investors represented by Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) together with the mining industry trade association the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) announced the Global Tailings Review (GTR). According to the GTR, its goal is, “to establish an international standard for the safer management of tailings storage facilities.”
The first draft of this standard was released in November of 2019 and open to public consultation through the end of the year.
Communities and civil society groups, including Earthworks, were critical of the scope and recommendations presented in the draft standard. In December, Earthworks submitted comments that highlighted key shortcomings, including the failure to require safety take precedence over cost, the lack of accountability at the highest levels, and the need to ensure meaningful community consent for all projects.
The GTR released the Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management on August 5, 2020. Earthworks believes that the ultimate goal of tailings management must be zero harm to people and the environment and zero tolerance for human fatalities. A meaningful standard for tailings management must require financial assurance and insurance, and accountability at the highest level of corporate governance. Community consent must be required at all stages of a project, allowing for communities to establish “no-go zones” where tailings facilities must never be considered. Public participation in decisions and reliable grievance mechanisms are necessary to ensure that communities and workers can raise the alarm without consequences. Earthworks, along with many organizations and communities, were looking to the Global Standard for these safeguards, but it fell short of what is needed.
In June, a group of over 150 scientists, community organizations and NGOs from 24 countries published “Safety First: Guidelines for Responsible Mine Tailings Management,” a set of 16 guidelines for the safer storage of mine waste. These guidelines bridge many of the gaps left by the Global Standard. Comparison of how the Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management stacks up against the Safety First Guidelines is available here.