The mining of metals results in significant changes in the environment. Mines can be as large as two miles wide by two miles long and ¾ mile deep, bringing about a significant change in the landscape. In addition, the mining process requires a great amount of water to separate minerals from the ore, leaving behind a large amount of waste rock with the consistency of sand. This material, referred to as “tailings,” is placed in a pond. The pond can be close to 1,000 feet wide and left for many years after a mine closes.
On January 25, 2019, in Brumadinho, Brazil, a tailings dam created by the mining company Vale collapsed, spilling 12 million cubic meters (more than 3.1 billion gallons) of tailings waste down the valley and causing the death of more than 270 people (see video of the collapse below, from the Wall Street Journal website).
Immediately, socially responsible investors met to determine a best step forward. They decided that some investors would engage Vale about the particular tailings dam breach. At the same time, the investors addressed the issue of the many mining companies that do not have good practice surrounding these dams.
The Church of England Pensions Board and Swedish National Pension Fund developed a sign-on letter asking mining companies to disclose details of their storage facilities. The Adrian Dominican Sisters’ Portfolio Advisory Board (PAB) joined these investors – representing more than $13.5 trillion in combined assets under management – to ask 726 of the largest publicly traded mining companies to disclose their tailings facilities. A review of the information submitted from the first group of dams shows some instability in 10% of the dams. This could lead to further disasters.
Photos of the Brumadinho mining disaster by Ibama on Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
These investors, together with the UN environmental program, the International Council of Metals and Mining, and the UN Principles for Responsible Investment, formed a Global Tailings Review which will include communities on the ground to determine the best way forward toward a standard that will improve the management of these facilities. The draft standard is currently out for review by academics, communities, investors, and the public at large.
These steps cannot change the tragedy that occurred in January, nor the other 11 incidents that have occurred since 2010, but the investors hope to be a voice for change, calling for accountability going forward. These efforts aim to develop a better understanding of the social and environmental risks around tailings management and ensure that systems are in place to prevent future disasters and increase mining safety standards worldwide.
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