The Anderson Tailings Impoundment Area at Hudbay Minerals' Snow Lake complex in Manitoba. Courtesy of Hudbay Minerals.

On August 6, the Global Tailings Review (GTR) launched its long-awaited Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management, created due to the tragic tailings dam failure at Vale’s Brazilian Córrego do Feijão iron mine in January 2019.

The GTR was originally co-convened in March of the same year and consists of three organizations – the United Nations Environment Programme, Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) and the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) – which combined will pressure governments, investors and mining companies to adopt the standard for themselves. The standard also incorporated feedback from 340 extractive companies operating around the world through disclosures of their tailing facilities and methods.

“The catastrophic dam collapse at Vale’s Córrego do Feijão mine in Brumadinho was a human and environmental tragedy that demanded decisive and appropriate action to enhance the safety and strengthen the governance of tailings facilities across the globe,” GTR chair Dr. Bruno Oberle said. “I am particularly pleased to deliver a document which reflects and addresses the complexity and multi-disciplinary nature of sound tailings management.”

The stated goal of the standard is to achieve zero harm to people and the environment by prioritizing safety and requiring operators to take responsibility for their tailings storage facilities throughout the entire lifecycle. To do so, the standard addresses six topics that would make significant strides in securing the safety of tailings storage facilities: respecting and engaging affected communities; developing an integrated knowledge base to support tailings management and inform decisions; developing plans and design criteria for tailings facilities to minimize risk; establishing policies to ensure accountability and review; preparing for failures and long-term recovery; and publicly disclosing and providing access to information about tailings facilities.

Industry response to the standard has been muted, but supportive. Barrick Gold, the largest gold miner in the world, lauded the launch of the standard and fully endorsed its principles. “We put safety at the centre of our tailings management and it determines how we manage these facilities from location and design to operation and safe closure,” Barrick group sustainability executive Grant Beringer said.

As the industry representative for the GTR, ICMM CEO Tom Butler stated that the standard will be integrated into the organization’s member commitments, with members operating facilities that have potential consequence levels of “extreme” or “very high” needing to conform to the standard within the next three years, and all other facilities within the next five.

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“ICMM and its members – representing about a third of the global industry – have an unwavering commitment to safer tailings facility management,” Butler said. “ICMM’s council welcomes the new Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management as a significant step forward in achieving this commitment. Through effective implementation of this standard, ICMM members will set the bar for all mining companies to work together to make all tailings facilities safer.”

However, for some environmental and community organizations outside of the industry, commitment and implementation are some of the more worrisome aspects of a standard that they believe doesn’t go far enough to adequately protect people and the environment.

On August 6, a group of non-governmental organizations, scientists and Indigenous and community organizations – organized by MiningWatch and Earthworks and included groups such as Amnesty International, First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining and the Movement for the Mountains and Waters of Minas Gerais – offered their criticisms of the standard, pointing out that it is “mostly voluntary and mostly management-based, not performance-based, with no implementation or enforcement mechanisms, and no set of consequences or penalties if companies fail to meet the standard.”

This issue is addressed within the preamble of standard itself, where it reads that “these issues are more appropriately addressed through national and/or state level regulatory authorities, or through multilateral agencies working with the industry.” For companies that don’t comply with the standard’s principles, Butler believes that the focus on public disclosure and accountability will help encourage companies to follow the rules.

 “The standard is clear about what is required, and it’s also clear about what must be disclosed as evidence that the standard is being met. The disclosure requirements mean that it will be obvious if a company is not compliant to all stakeholders,” Butler said during a live webinar following the launch of the standard. “Our existing assurance validation procedure requires companies to explain what they’re doing to remedy non-compliance and everyone will be able to see that as well, as that’s part of the disclosure under our existing procedure. Because of all that disclosure, companies will have a very strong incentive to fix non-compliance.”

Instead of government regulation, companies will have the threat of being removed from the ICMM, and potentially losing out on the US$103.4 trillion in assets under management by PRI, which says it will be developing investor expectations to support mining companies that meet the standard.

“In January 2019, we called for there to be a new industry standard that drives best practice to address the risk of tailings facility failure, and we have been assured by the Global Tailings Review’s independent expert panel that if this standard had been in place, the disaster at Brumadinho would not have happened,” said John Howchin, secretary general of the Council on Ethics for the Swedish National Pension Funds (which represented PRI). “We expect all mining companies to comply with this framework, and responsible investors looking to address the risks of tailings failure now have a responsibility to drive implementation, incorporating the standard into stewardship and active ownership strategies.”