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One year on from Brumadinho, miners must step up efforts to tackle deadly dams

Adam Matthews
The dam collapse in Brumadinho resulted in the deaths of 270 people - AFP

Four years ago, investors and companies were warned of a fundamental problem with the way waste from mining was being stored in tailing dams.

Despite the deaths of 19 people in Mariana in Brazil, and huge environmental damage, the issue was not properly addressed. Tragically an even larger disaster would occur just over three years later on Jan 25, 2019 in the same region of Brazil resulting in the deaths of 270 people at Brumadinho.

The response this time has been very different. Today local community members will continue a solemn procession to the site of the disaster, and reflect on the news earlier this week that the former CEO of the company, Brazilian mining giant Vale, has been charged with murder.

At the same time investors, banks and insurers with more than $14 trillion (£10.6 trillion) in assets under management are meeting in London, convened by the Church of England Pensions Board and the Council of Ethics for the Swedish National Pension Funds, to take decisive action on tailings safety across the mining sector.

Tailings dams are some of the largest human-made structures on earth and supposed to last in perpetuity but some are not and more will collapse. Major interventions since the Brumadinho disaster by investors have included the demand for a new independent global standard of tailings management that is based upon the consequences of failure.

This has resulted in an independent Global Tailings Review led by former Swiss environment minister, professor Bruno Oberle and jointly convened by industry and investors through the International Council on Mining and Metals, United Nations Environment Programme and Principles for Responsible Investment.

Once the review was established, investors then wrote to over 700 companies and requested detailed disclosures for the first time on each individual tailings facility they had responsibility. That applied both to their direct operations and any joint ventures.

It is remarkable to think that until now there was no public record of which company has a tailings facility.

As a result of these disclosures today we launch a new public global database of the 1,800 tailings dams that have been identified to date (although we know that there are as many as 18,00-33,000 in existence globally and need to be tracked).

This is very much a first step and will integrate satellite imagery of each dam into the site as well as details of the safety classifications.

Further interventions are also to be agreed today by investors to establish a new set of expectations from the finance sector for how mining companies operate on tailings. Investors will also look to commit to reinforcing a new global standard and being prepared to consider denying finance to companies that do not comply.

Now we are beginning to understand this issue in depth investors will no doubt begin to price in this externality into their view of the market and individual companies.

Importantly, we know that some interventions require working together, with urgency, alongside industry and governments.

People march to Brumadinho city, as they protest against the Brazilian mining company Vale last week Credit: REUTERS

The first intervention is the need to create an international monitoring centre that provides objective monitoring of tailings dam every minute all year round. We have systems like this for shipping and aviation and it is clear we need this for tailings dams to act as an independent alert system to governments, regulators, companies and local municipalities.

Second, we must remove the most dangerous tailings dams. Now we are beginning to identify the dams we can pinpoint which pose too great a risk and need to be removed. This is a mining legacy issue and will require urgency but also a practical recognition that outside of the mining majors few companies will be able to simply remove a facility.

A funding mechanism needs to be established, but one that can move at pace. This should not remove the responsibility of the company but enable immediate action.

The third intervention is to convene a process to enable insurance to be available for all tailings facilities that have not been removed.

Lastly, industry with the support of investors needs to turbo charge the application of new technologies to remove the need for tailings dams. There are examples of individual companies that operate to the highest current standards and a number of these CEOs have been partners with investors in driving the kind of change that needs to happen following Brumadinho.

However, this is not universal and until investors intervened, we did not even know which companies had tailings dams.

The urgency of this action is underlined by new data released today showing that the volume of tailings stored in publicly disclosed facilities is set to increase 25pc in the next five years. When first engaging with this issue as investors in the mining sector we were told tailings dam collapses were black swan events. Well they are not, and there is an increasing trend that points to a regularity of major failures of dams.

If we are to be honest these two disasters are the inevitable consequence of a mining system that has been pushed to maximise returns and reduce costs, with the treatment of waste seen in many respects as an externality.

Whilst it is easy to point the finger, we should all be aware that we are also part of this problem as society demands the minerals and metals for modern life including the low carbon transition, and we need this sector to flourish.

But we have demanded these resources as cheaply as possible. As a result we have built up a legacy in waste contained in enormous tailings dams where people are getting killed and the environment destroyed.

It is too soon to say if the interventions that investors are driving will be sufficient, but what is clear is that the response this time is genuinely trying to deal with the root of the problem.

It will undoubtedly be difficult but this will eventually result in a safer mining sector that can provide the minerals and metals we need without the tragic consequences. 

Adam Matthews is director of ethics and engagement at the Church of England Pensions Board and co-chair of the Global Mining & Tailings Safety Initiative with John Howchin of the Swedish Council on Ethics of the AP funds.