Last year was a disastrous one for mining companies.
Some of the world’s largest mining companies failed to control the massive dams in which they store the toxic waste that’s left over when minerals such as gold are extracted from ore. The result was spills that polluted rivers in Canada, Mexico and Brazil. In the case of Brazil’s Samarco mine spill, a reported 17 people died and hundreds more were displaced.
Communities in all three countries are still struggling in the aftermath of these disasters. In the case of Samarco, the most recent and devastating disaster, mine waste engulfed a village in the state of Minas Gerais with massive quantities of mine waste filling houses and ripping off roofs. The sludge polluted 300 miles of the Rio Doce before reaching the Atlantic Ocean. Experts predict the spill could destroy entire ecosystems, including species that have yet to be discovered. The spill also sent shockwaves through the markets, as the Brazilian government cancelled the mine license for Samarco, the company operating the mine, and a federal court ordered BHP Billiton and Vale — Samarco’s co-owners and two of the world’s 5 largest mining companies — to pay $5 billion in fines. US investors have also sued Vale for financial losses they would incur as a result of the catastrophe.
But while the Brazilian government has taken strong action, global response to these failures — in terms of both company management and government regulation — has been dangerously tepid.
The International Council on Mining and Metals, the trade organization of the mining industry, announced in December that it is conducting a review of tailings dam management standards of its 23 member companies (one of which is Samarco co-owner BHP Billiton).
Earthworks and 13 other groups wrote a response to this announcement, outlining what we think the ICMM should do to produce meaningful improvements in the way member companies manage their mine waste dams. Our recommendations include: Publicizing review findings; making new guidance binding; and transitioning from the massive liquid tailings impoundments that are prone to disaster, toward dry tailings storage (this recommendation is based on conclusions of the Mount Polley Independent Expert and Review Panel, which was commissioned by the British Columbia government to investigate that tailings dam failure.
But the real solutions to this problem do not lie in the hands of industry. 2016 must be the year that the world responds to the growing threat of toxic tailings dams — a ticking time bomb that has in fact, gone off several times last year.
This is why Earthworks, along with Greenpeace Brazil, Greenpeace Canada, MiningWatch Canada, and 10 other groups called on the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in August 2015 to convene a transparent, multi-stakeholder process for a global review of existing tailings dams and standards.
In response to our letter, UNEP informed us that the agency is conducing a review of current guidance and best practices. We urge UNEP to conduct a more comprehensive review by collecting input from representatives from industry, civil society, and impacted communities. Ultimately, we believe such a review can disclose the risks posed by mine waste dams, establish high standards and generate the will to meet them.
Such a review is not an end goal, but the starting point to bring much-needed reform to the mining industry.