HomeGoldForewarned is forearmed: Averting future tailings facilities disasters

Forewarned is forearmed: Averting future tailings facilities disasters

Without proper management, tailings facilities can pose a significant risk to the natural and social environment. It is for this reason that Sibanye-Stillwater is committed to the safe and environmentally responsible stewardship of its tailings storage facilities in accordance with the Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management (GISTM). Compiled by GERARD PETER.

According to Grant Stuart, Senior Vice-President: Environmental, the Group is on a journey of continual improvement and embedding ESG as the way the group does business.

Currently, the company has 38 tailings storage facilities under management, both in South Africa and the United States, most of which were acquired through our transformational journey. As a result of having been designed, built and managed by various companies, according to different standards and specifications over varying decades, there was limited uniformity in Sibanye-Stillwater’s fleet of tailings storage facilities, particularly in their historic management and governance. Nor was there any consistency or alignment in the regulations that govern the two jurisdictions in which the tailings storage facilities are situated.

Sibanye-Stillwater has embarked on a wide-ranging programme to align its management of tailings storage facilities with the Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management (GISTM) which was launched in August last year.

Adopting the GISTM is a required commitment of all member companies of the International Council of Mining and Metals (ICMM). This standard is the first of its kind and was developed through collaboration between the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) and ICMM.

It covers the entire tailings storage facility lifecycle – from site selection, design and construction, through management and monitoring, to closure and post-closure – and seeks to strengthen current practices in the mining industry by integrating social, environmental, local economic and technical considerations. “The standard significantly raises the bar for the industry to achieve strong social, environmental and technical outcomes. It also establishes clear expectations around global transparency and disclosure requirements, helping to improve understanding by interested stakeholders,” Stuart adds.

Journey to compliance

Given the extensive requirements contained in the GISTM, all participating mining companies have been given a grace period of three years from 2020 (for high and extreme facilities) or five years (for all other facilities) to make adjustments to their tailings storage facility policies and procedures and to improve or upgrade existing high-risk facilities.

Subsequently, Sibanye-Stillwater began implementing a range of initiatives to improve and align its management of tailings storage facilities, a process which is expected to take between two to three years. Stuart explains that the first priority measure undertaken in 2020 was the creation of a new position – Vice-President: Tailings Engineering – to oversee all aspects relating to tailings management.

Linked to this appointment was a shift in reporting procedure so that all matters relating to tailings management are reported directly to the executive committee with the Chief Technical Officer appointed as the Accountable Executive, responsible for the safety of tailings facilities and for minimising the social and environmental consequences of a potential tailings facility failure. This is a specific requirement of the GISTM. In addition to our focus on executive accountability, we are too focused on the governance aspect of tailings management.

All of the company’s tailings facilities in South Africa are built in an upstream direction. While building in the upstream direction has not been abandoned, specific countries have banned upstream construction such as Chile due to earthquakes and Brazil due to high rainfall. In addition, upstream facilities pose a higher risk and hence require an increased and robust level of management which has been practised for decades in South Africa.

The tailings storage facilities of the company’s South African and US PGM operations, which were designed and built more recently according to more stringent parameters, are aligned with international best practice on tailings management. However, much work needs to be done, particularly integrating operational management with environmental and social requirements, in order for all of the company’s tailings storage facilities to be fully compliant with the GISTM.

Putting the markers in place

According to Stuart, there are several changes that are being made to align to the strict governance requirements contained in the GISTM. “This includes, but is not limited to, the development of a new tailings storage facility-focused governance framework, the overhaul of tailings storage facility-related systems into a single board-approved group tailings management system and the improvement of operational documentation to assist in site-level validation and third-party assessments.”

At the same time, Sibanye-Stillwater has embarked on a programme to evaluate the geotechnical status of all its South African tailings storage facilities. Of particular focus in these investigations will be detailed assessments of each tailings storage facility. Furthermore, a comprehensive gap analysis is underway to determine the shortfalls against the GISTM and group tailings management system. The new system is aligned to the GISTM and includes measures to identify, report and mitigate risks.

Catastrophic tailings facility failures devastate the environment and destroy lives and livelihoods. “Such catastrophic failures are unacceptable, and Sibanye-Stillwater is dedicated to ensuring that systems, standards and resources are in place to prevent failures,” concludes Stuart.