Nonprofit environmental and community organisation Earthworks, together with an international group of 142 scientists, community groups and nongovernmental organisations from 24 countries, have published a set of 16 guidelines for the safer storage of mine waste.
The guidelines, titled 'Safety First: Guidelines for Responsible Mine Tailings Management', aim to protect communities, workers and the environment from the risks posed by thousands of mine waste storage facilities, which Earthworks says are failing more frequently and with more severe outcomes.
According to the guidelines, the ultimate goal of tailings management must be zero harm to people and the environment and zero tolerance for human fatalities.
Earthworks points out that a 2019 dam collapse in Brazil killed 270 people and destroyed the town of Brumadinho, and came on the heels of tailings dam failures at the Mount Polley mine in Canada and the Samarco mine in Brazil, besides others.
Across the world, communities in the shadow of large tailings dams live in a state of “perpetual fear”.
The guidelines come as the Global Tailings Review, co-convened by the international mining industry association, ICMM, investors and the United Nations Environment Programme, prepares to unveil the first Global Tailings Standard for the safer management of tailings storage facilities.
Earthworks notes that current industry standards, including the draft of the Global Tailings Standard released in 2019, do not adequately protect communities and ecosystems from failures.
The trend in tailings dam tragedies are a consequence of allowing mining companies to sacrifice safety to cut costs, control auditors and silence dissent among workers, it claims.
The organisation further believes tailings storage facilities should only be built with community consent, while respecting human rights and the rights of indigenous peoples, adopting the best available technologies and practices.
Further, Earthworks says international safety protocols must be independent of company control, and must be established through multi-stakeholder processes that actively engage workers, communities and civil society.
Strong standards for tailings dams must also ensure financial guarantees and accountability at the highest level of corporate governance, states Earthworks, which adds that public participation in decisions and reliable whistle-blower and grievance mechanisms are necessary to ensure that communities and workers can raise the alarm without consequences.
To avoid the long-term liability of mine waste sites and their social and environmental impacts, Earthworks notes that overall demand for primary raw minerals must be reduced.
The group publishing the report includes frontline organisations in mining-affected communities from Brazil, Tanzania, Papua New Guinea, India and elsewhere as well as global groups such as Amnesty International Canada, Earthworks, IndustriALL Global Union Federation, MiningWatch Canada, the Natural Resources Defense Council, The Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB) and the Sierra Club.Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor Online