Guest Author: Yvonne Orengo, Director of the Andrew Lees Trust
This week, investors, insurers, mining companies, representatives of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and other stakeholders meet in London for the annual Mining 2030 Investor Agenda & Global Tailings Summit, with the goal of improving tailings safety around the world. This year’s meeting will focus on creating a Global Tailings Management Institute and promoting the Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management (GISTM).
Held on the anniversary of the Brumandinho dam disaster of 25th January 2019, which killed 270 people, the initiative is a reminder that large mining companies are yet to make meaningful changes to mine tailings and mine tailings dam management that actually improve the lives of downstream communities and protect ecosystems. This can be seen through the actions of one of the largest mining companies in the world, Rio Tinto, in Madagascar. While Rio Tinto boasts its involvement in establishing and promoting the GISTM, the QMM mine does not currently adhere to the standard. Rio Tinto claims it will be in compliance by August 2023.
The Rio Tinto QMM mine in southern Madagascar is extracting ilmenite, which yields titanium dioxide used to produce ultra-white pigments for paints, papers, cosmetics and food. QMM is a company jointly owned by Rio Tinto (80%) and the Malagasy Government (20%). Extraction began in Mandena in 2009 with a projected project lifespan of 40 years and the removal of 6000 hectares of indigenous littoral forest in one of the poorest and most environmentally sensitive areas of the island.
Tailings Dam Failures
There have been four reported tailings dam failures at Rio Tinto’s QMM mine: 2010, 2018, Feb 2022 and March 2022. The incidents in 2018 and 2022 received significant attention due to the appearance of dead fish. One additional incident was reported by the local community on 24th April 2022, but was denied by QMM.
In response to questions about the dam failures in February and March of last year, Rio Tinto’s Chair asserted that there are “no tailings” and “no tailings dam” at the QMM mine. They call the mine’s waste “reject sands”. This is another way of saying mine tailings. These are deposited back into the mine basin, thereby making it a Tailings Storage Facility (TSF) or Tailings Disposal Facility.
The Malagasy regulator requires QMM to build a “berm” 30m wide and 4m high, in order to “prevent water flowing from the mine basin into the surrounding environment.” The “berm” around the TSF is therefore a mine tailings dam. Even if the company insists on calling it by other names (i.e., berm, barrier, levee, embankment, retaining wall). It has a performance objective of a dam: to retain mine process wastewater in the mine basin. If it does not do that, it has failed.
Contamination of local waterways
Through churning of mineral sands during extraction, QMM’s mine generates water containing heavy metals such as uranium, lead and thorium, which it releases through surface discharge and groundwater seepage. QMM water data, analysed in 2019 by radioactivity expert Dr. Stella Swanson,indicated high concentrations of uranium in the QMM mine basin, “creating an enhanced source of uranium” to local rivers and waterways when released.
Uranium and lead have been detected in waters downstream of the QMM mine, 50 and 40 times respectively above WHO safe drinking water levels (Swanson 2019, Emerman 2019, 2020 and 2021).Uranium can affect kidneys and bones (Health Canada, 2019). Low levels of lead exposure can damage the nervous system, and are linked to learning disabilities, shorter stature, impaired hearing, and impaired formation/function of blood cells (US EPA, 2019).
In 2019, hydrology and mining expert Dr. Steven Emerman calculated the annual probability of seepage from the QMM mine basin or overtopping of the dam in response to heavy rainfall and determined these to be “unacceptably high.”
Impacts on people
Villagers collect drinking water and fish for food and livelihoods from the lakes around the QMM mine at Mandena. Following the February and March tailings dam failures at QMM in 2022, hundreds of dead fish appeared. A fishing ban and months of conflict and protests ensued.
A total of 8778 affected villagers submitted complaints after the fishing ban destroyed their livelihoods, compounding ten years of losses and health issues that they attribute to water quality degradation caused by QMM operations.Latest reports from the ground suggest that the proposed compensation for 5400 of these complainants does not adequately reflect the real value of the decade-long losses experienced by villagers.
Villagers have no independent arbitration, legal counsel nor professional accompaniment for these negotiations. The majority of rural villagers are non-literate, with little understanding of Rio Tinto/QMM’s international standards and commitments or their national level obligations. Most are excluded from decision-making.
Rio Tinto’s maneuvering to avoid the words “tailings,” “dam,” and “tailings storage facility,” allow the company to claim compliance and support for the GISTM, while avoiding the safety improvements urgently needed to protect communities and their livelihoods. By witholding or delaying the release of water data, water quality analysis, dam safety inspection reports, risk assessments and other relevant information, the company undermines the goals of transparency established in the GISTM. As investors and UNEP announce the newly formed tailings institute, it will be imperative that the institute have the authority and capacity to confront mining companies, like Rio Tinto, and hold them to account.