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