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The Mount Polley disaster should have been a global wakeup call to address the safety and governance of mine waste dams. Instead, despite an authoritative investigation uncovering the root causes of the Mount Polley failure and recommending steps needed to avoid more of them in the future, there have been several more mine waste spills since Mount Polley – three in Mexico alone.

To help prevent further toxic catastrophes, over 3 dozen environmental and social justice groups including Earthworks, Friends of the Earth, and Greenpeace sent a letter today to the United Nations Environment Programme urging the agency to call for global review and regulations to address threats posed by similar dams at existing and proposed mines around the world. As the global authority on environmental protection, UNEP can not only bring much-needed attention to this problem, but also develop international guidelines and assist countries to respond to this growing threat.

These disasters were preventable. In the case of Mount Polley, the government-commissioned independent investigative panel determined that the dam failed because of a faulty design that didn’t account for the instability of the glacial till on which it was constructed. The company’s storage of excess water and over-steepening of dam slopes complicated the failure.

Government investigators of the Buenavista mine spill in Mexico last year also pointed to failures in management, including the absence of a valve that would have prevented the spill, as the cause for the dam failure.

What’s more, these disasters are increasing in severity and frequency, according to an interdisciplinary analysis, as a result of technologies that allow companies to exploit lower-grade ore, generating higher quantities of waste in the process. Mine waste dams have become significantly larger and more susceptible to failure as a result.

Large tailings dams built to contain mining waste, among the largest structures in the world, must stand in perpetuity. Yet there is no global entity responsible for oversight of tailings dam safety.

Our demands to UNEP are simple:

  • Issue new guidance on tailings dam management based on the recommendations made by the Mount Polley tailings dam review panel, including the shift to dry tailings storage;
  • Advocate for the creation of regulations specific to tailings dams;
  • Encourage the World Bank and other multilateral financial institutions to review the Mount Polley committee recommendations as they overhaul their lending safeguard policies.

Tailings dam failures are a global problem that will only get worse in the future. It’s time for UNEP to use their authority to call for higher standards and greater environmental protection.

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