Employees from Brazil’s Ministry of Environment survey the damage of the tailings dam failure near Brumadinho, Brazil. Photo: Vinícius Mendonça/Ibama
Hazeltine Creek was devastated by the 2015 Mt. Polley tailings spill in British Columbia, Canda. Photo: Chris Blake

Statement: Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management Falls Short

August 5, 2020
Latest News

A Mine Should Not Be a Death Threat

Industrial-scale mine waste storage dams are collapsing more frequently and more severely, literally killing communities and ecosystems.

If an existing mine cannot guarantee the safety of affected communities, as a condition of continued operation the mining company must be required  — as a first and overriding priority — to improve its waste storage safety until it can.

To ensure safety is guaranteed, independent and universally implemented tailing storage standards need to be created that respect community consent and hold mining companies accountable.

Mines are producing greater amounts of waste

As the world’s high grade ore deposits are tapped out, mines grow larger to extract lower grades of ore. Metal mining has become increasingly wasteful as technology allows the profitable extraction of much lower grades of ore.  But these larger amounts of waste, called tailings, are frequently being stored in facilities that were designed for far smaller quantities of waste or behind dams where minimizing cost is prioritized before safety.

Tailings failures are increasing in frequency & severity

In August 2014, a tailings dam breach at the Mount Polley Mine in British Columbia released 5 million cubic meters of toxic waste into nearby creeks and a lake. The failure was so violent that it ripped mature trees from the forests and sent them miles downriver into Quesnel Lake.

The following year, in Brazil the Samarco Mine’s tailings dam failed catastrophically, killing 19 people downstream and sending mine waste over 600 km down the Rio Doce river to the Atlantic Ocean. When submitting permitting documents, the mining company that owned the Samarco mine, a joint venture between Brazilian mining giant Vale and BHP Billiton, vastly underestimated the amount of damage that would be caused by a rupture in the dam, predicting that waste would only flow 3.5 km.

Aftermath of the Samarco mine tailings failure. Photo: Rogério Alves/TV Senado
Aftermath of the BHP/Vale Samarco mine tailings failure. Photo: Rogério Alves/TV Senado

In January of 2019, after Vale vowed “never again” in response to the Samarco catastrophe, a second dam Vale collapsed, killing at least 270 people (another 11 are still missing and feared dead) and sending 9.7 million cubic meters of waste into the Paraopeba River ecosystem. An independent report commissioned in 2020 found that Vale was aware of the instability of its 86 meter tall dam as far back as 2003, but did not take appropriate measures to prevent the accident or to warn downstream communities.

Failures are not aberrations

Unfortunately, these recent failures are not aberrations. Research into all serious tailings failures since 1915 shows:

  • The rate of serious tailings dam failures is increasing. Half (33 of 67) of serious tailings dam failures in the last 70 years occurred in the 20 years between 1990 and 2009.
  • The increasing rate of tailings dam failures is propelled by, not in spite of, modern mining practices.The increasing failure rate is directly related to the increasing number of dams with a storage capacity over 5 million cubic meters, which are needed to allow for the economically viable extraction of lower grades of ore.
  • 19 catastrophic failures are predicted globally between 2018 and 2027.

Because tailings storage facilities are not removed at the mine’s closure, the danger they pose continues in perpetuity, in many cases, even after the company that built the mines ceases to exist.


For More Information


Communities at Risk:

Mexico's Largest Mine Threatens Disaster
Mexico's Largest Mine Threatens Disaster
A State of Ticking Time Bombs
A State of Ticking Time Bombs
Hazeltine Creek was devastated by the 2015 Mt. Polley tailings spill in British Columbia, Canda. Photo: Chris Blake

Statement: Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management Falls Short

August 5, 2020
Latest News