June 24, 2020 / 6:58 PM / a month ago

Exclusive: Global tailings dam standards fall short of changes sought by civil society groups

TORONTO (Reuters) - A sweeping global standard that sets out how the world’s largest miners care for waste dams falls short of measures environmental and civil society groups say are needed to avert future disasters, according to a copy of the final draft seen by Reuters.

FILE PHOTO: Members of a rescue team search for victims of a collapsed tailings dam owned by Brazilian mining company Vale SA in a vehicle on Paraopeba River, in Brumadinho, Brazil February 5, 2019. REUTERS/Adriano Machado

A panel of industry, investor and U.N. groups has been working for more than a year on the standard, triggered by the 2019 collapse of Vale SA’s (VALE3.SA) Brumadinho upstream tailings dam that killed more than 250 people. The standard is not binding but the panel expects that miners will adhere to it.

Tailings dams, some of which tower dozens of meters high and stretch for several kilometers, are the most common waste-disposal method for miners. Brazil has banned new upstream mining dams and ordered existing ones be deactivated by 2021.

The review did not cover technical design or look to exclude certain types such as upstream dams from future use. It is unclear how soon the new standard will be released and how quickly miners will adopt it.

Civil society groups had urged the panel to ban upstream dams while increasing accountability measures for corporate boards. Cheaper to build, upstream dams have higher risks because their walls are constructed over a base of muddy mining waste rather than on solid ground.

More than a third of the world’s tailings dams are at high risk of causing catastrophic damage to nearby communities if they crumble, a Reuters analysis of company data found last year. here

The final draft compels miners to study “all feasible sites, technologies and strategies” for new tailings facilities to reduce risks.

They would also be required to increase disclosure of risks while appointing one or more accountable executives with responsibility for tailings safety who are directly answerable to the chief executive and have regular communication with the board.

“They didn’t go far enough to really make changes that are going to significantly impact the safety of tailings dam management,” said David Chambers, a geophysicist and president of the Center for Science in Public Participation.

“You’re basically creating a sacrificial lamb, so that if something goes wrong you sacrifice the accountable executive and claim that it wasn’t your fault.”

The review panel is backed by the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM), the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) and ethical investor group Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI).

A March deadline for finalizing the standard was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic but all three groups have now endorsed the final draft, a PRI representative said.

The standard will have “clear consequences” for the way companies design tailings dams while underlining the responsibility of boards in decision-making, said Adam Matthews, head of the Church of England’s pension office.

“We are confident that if this standard is implemented, it will significantly improve safety across the mining sector,” he said.

ICMM Chief Executive Tom Butler said the standard is “deliberately not too prescriptive” and is a “comprehensive first step in terms of setting expectations across the industry.”

ICMM represents global miners Vale, BHP Group (BHP.AX), Glencore Plc (GLEN.L) and others. UNEP did not respond to a request for comment.

Under the standards, an independent safety review of the riskiest structures must be completed at least every five years, with limits to stop one contractor from conducting consecutive reviews on the same facility.

Such facilities would also face review “at appropriate intervals” by an independent tailings review board, the document said.

Miners must also show “adequate financial capacity (including insurance, to the extent commercially reasonable) is available” to cover closure and reclamation costs, it said.

Reporting by Jeff Lewis in Toronto; Editing by Matthew Lewis

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