When it Comes to Storing Mine Waste, Safety Must Come First

On Tuesday June 30th, Earthworks joined 150 scientists, frontline communities, and environmental and human rights organizations to release a set of 16 guidelines for safer management of mine waste with the goal of protecting communities and the environment from catastrophic tailings storage failures. 

Three days later in Ecuador, as though to highlight the need for these strong standards, the Ministry of Energy and Non-Renewable Resources confirmed the collapse of a tailings dam at a gold mine that spilled 50 tons of waste into a local river. While a comparatively minor tailings spill in terms of volume, it contaminated water local communities use for drinking and growing crops. For that reason they “classify the event as a tragedy for the ecosystem.”  The local mayor reported that many of the over 60 tailings dams in the area are built along the edges of rivers, disregarding environmental regulations.  

Civil Society Proposes Changes

The guidelines released on June 30th, “Safety First: Guidelines for Responsible Mine Tailings Management,” assert that, “current industry standards…do not go far enough to adequately protect communities and ecosystems from failures. The design, construction, operation and closure of tailings facilities require significant changes to protect people and the environment.”

In short: mining companies must put safety over profits. The ultimate goal of tailings management must be zero harm to people and the environment and zero tolerance for human fatalities. The new guidelines detail safety considerations like ending the use of construction methods that have a higher chance of failure, requiring a safe distance between dams and communities, establishing rigorous safety controls, and establishing robust monitoring with independent reviews.

Additionally, communities must be at the forefront of making decisions that affect their safety.  Their 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. Affected communities must also be involved in developing and implementing publicly-available emergency response plans and have access to information.

Finally, mining companies must be held accountable for mine waste disasters, and that accountability has to extend to the very top including the Board of Directors. Companies must have enough independent, accessible financial assurance to be able close tailings facilities safely and to continue monitoring them as long as necessary. The company must also have environmental liability insurance to cover any potential damages as a result of failure or environmental contamination over time. They should not be allowed to self-bond or self-insure.

The Safety First Guidelines were released with broad support in English, Spanish and Portuguese (as well as the Executive Summary in French). The report received coverage in Reuters and other news outlets, and the Financial Times ran an opinion piece authored by Earthworks  highlighting why, “keeping communities and the environment safe from tailings dams is more urgent than ever.”  In an encouraging and unanticipated turn of events, environmental organizations in Galicia, Spain promoted the release of the report, and a progressive political party competing in the Galician regional election added the guidelines to its political platform. If elected, the BNG party has committed to working more closely with local environmental organizations and adopting the guidelines outlined in Safety First. 

Where Do We Go From Here?

What is clear from the recent tailings spill in Ecuador, as well as the tailings dam failures earlier this year in Mexico and China that followed on the heels of the catastrophic tailings dam failures in Brazil, is that mining companies are not building and maintaining safe structures, and, ultimately, they are not accountable for the damages they cause. They pass the liability and costs of their dangerous practices off onto communities, governments and entire ecosystems.  

And while local governments adopting and implementing the Safety First Guidelines is a crucial step in moving towards safer tailings management, often they are unable, as in the recent case in Ecuador, or unwilling to adequately regulate the industry by themselves. 

That is why the Safety First Guidelines call for a “credible, transparent, and independent international agency capable of certifying safe tailings. This must be a well-resourced agency capable of efficiently updating global standards, certifying their implementation, investigating failures, and making publicly available recommendations. This agency must not rely solely on industry experts, must include broad State or civil society engagement, and must be accountable to the public and affected communities. It must also have the ability to work with governments to enforce safety standards.

If your organization would like to join us in working to protect communities from dangerous mining practices, you can do so by signing on here.