Tailings safety

It will nearly be twelve months since the Brumadinho tailings safety disaster in Brazil which claimed over two hundred and fifty lives.

The lives lost included mine employees and community members who were unfortunate to be in the direct path of the dam contents.

The wake of the tragedy has rallied the mining sector to initiate the development of a global industry safety standard on the construction and maintenance of tailings dams.

Listen: Should Upstream Tailings Storage Facilities be banned?

The disaster is a poignant reminder of safety, health and environmental issues in the mining sector and how important it is to prioritize compliance and the continuous development of safety protocols.

In South Africa, the R5 Billion settlement reached in Nkala & Others vs. Harmony Gold Mine & Others was also a pinnacle reminder of occupational risk and how adverse occupational impacts can live on years after project closure, the end of employment or retirement.

safety
AUTHOR: Selina Zhuwarara

The R5 billion settlement concluded in July 2019 was for miners affected by silicosis and pulmonary tuberculosis from exposure to respirable silica in gold mines from around 1965 to date.

The success of the claim has unearthed more litigation from similarly affected miners who have borne the burden of delipidating illness arising from their mining careers.

The impacts of mining, whether positive or negative, outlive the projects themselves and where negative impacts are not managed proactively or adequately, the consequences will linger into the future and claim its price and in some cases even lives.

Read: Accurate pore pressure monitoring reduces tailings dam risk

The gravity of the consequences of negative impacts from mining mandates all stakeholders to continuously renew their attention, resources and commitment towards safety, health and environmental assurance in the industry.

Mining personnel and communities living in proximity to extractive activities are constantly exposed to various sources of pollutants and negative impacts which arise from mining activities.

There is need to always actively tackle these impacts to prevent loss of life or the deterioration of the environment or quality of life. In order to do this, there should be a coherent and clear strategy which devolves from national level to community level which puts in place rules, systems, resources and institutions to guide and oversee the management of impacts.

This system and all its stakeholders should have clarity of purpose, be appropriately skilled, knowledgeable and be adequately resourced to effectively execute their mandate.          

Skills and knowledge in this facet of the industry are not static, risks evolve, and new ones emerge as the industry also improves. It is therefore important to continuously develop and revise the rules, skills, knowledge and strategies shaping safety, health and environmental issues affecting the sector.

It is equally important to also invest in disseminating information, educating and engaging with communities affected by mining on risks and the various structural intervention’s available to them for awareness and redress. In most cases education on safety, environmental and health risks for such communities is left for non-governmental organizations to conduct.

Read: Global Tailings Review launches public consultation

There should be direct and constant lines of interface between the government and communities regarding the management of impacts encountered by communities in mining zones.

Part of this engagement should also consist of public departments and institutions educating these communities of the various impacts, how they are addressed, who to approach and how to assess improvement after redress.

In order to have such an interconnected and efficient system the institutions and corporate departments tasked with oversight and enforcement of such issues also needs adequate resourcing to carry out their functions.

Without adequate resources they become ineffective and ceremonial. Every mineral rich country should feature oversight and compliance funding as a major item in its annual national budget because the rewards of the sector come with a corresponding obligation to ensure that the sectors activities do diminish or attack the human rights of citizens and the integrity of the environment.

As 2020 beckons, it is prudent for the government and industry to renew its focus on safety, health and environmental issues which are at the heart of economic, environmental and social sustainability in the mining sector.

One of the worst performing subsectors on safety, health and environmental issues is the artisanal and informal mining sector. Whilst many mineral rich governments side-line this sector as illegal and rogue, it is inevitable to acknowledge its rapid growth and influence.

This reality requires governments to take the reins more resolutely and become accountable for its fruits and misdeeds. This is particularly important regarding the negative impacts that arise from the sectors’ current unregulated or inadequately regulated mode.

While the informal sector has immense potential to address the industry’s ability to distribute and share the benefits of mineral wealth, it is impossible to ignore the dreadful negative impacts that have also emerged from the sector due to lack of regulation.

In addition to environmental degradation various ills such as violence, illicit trade in minerals, money laundering and the spread of various communicable diseases and infections that had previously been brought under control are now gaining traction again.

For instance, Zimbabwe has seen the emergence and domination of machete wielding gangs that rob, kill and terrorize communities and fellow miners alike especially in the informal gold sector.

This is a phenomenon that was never part of Zimbabwe’s social fabric, but it has now gained traction and prominence in such a short space of time.

The government of Zimbabwe has only recently started to address this issue head on, however more is required to extinguish the roots of violence and social ill that has entrenched itself in this sector.

Read: Majors support transparency of tailings storage facilities

The informal mining sector is steadily growing in many mineral rich countries in Africa and without concrete strategies on formalizing this sector, many negative impacts will continue to spread and diminish the progress garnered thus far.

At this point governments need to take responsibility and actively intervene in managing and providing redress for these negative impacts whilst they formulate concrete plans on how to formalize and support the re-organization of the sector.

It is a considered view that every mineral rich country should formally bring into focus and annually collate for review the safety, health and environmental statistics of the artisanal sectors failings.

Once enumerated and formally reported it will become apparent how much inaction is costing mineral rich nations. To not formally report the artisanal sectors’ known performance and safety, health and environmental failings is a flawed approach to the governance of the mining industry.

It keeps regulators in the comfort of being able to turn a blind eye to the consequences of the sector and the need for urgent action regarding its activities.

The safety, health and environmental failures of the informal mining sector are the failures of the mining industry and of the governing framework of the mining industry.

Left unattended the progress made in the control of environmental degradation, reduction of occupational fatalities and the progress made in the reduction of HIV transmissions, sexually transmitted diseases, tuberculosis, silicosis and other occupational related diseases will be lost.

Governments should not ignore these developments because it is in the interests of the mining industry and national development to address these issues proactively and resolutely by formalizing this sector and making it contribute positively to national development goals.

The body of knowledge and information on the management of occupational risk in the extractive industries and the management of exposure from toxins in the sector is forever increasing due to extensive research in these areas.

This knowledge is key to regulatory bodies especially in mineral rich countries because it should shape the continuous development and improvement of laws and regulations that set of minimum operational standards that are acceptable regarding safety, health and environmental issues in the sector.

Read: More than 100 perish in Brumadinho

In many instances mining legislation is left to lag and resultantly ends up offering an inadequate scope of protection. Legislation and regulation must keep up with information and knowledge that is continually becoming available in the sector.

Poor and deficient regulation results in the unnecessary loss of life, environmental degradation, ill health and diminished goodwill towards the sector.

The Brumadinho disaster led to the Brazilian government banning upstream tailings dams and requiring all such existing dams to be decommissioned in the next few years.

Revisions have also led to additional rules regarding the construction of tailings dams in the direct path of human presence or habitation. Many mineral rich countries in Africa have upstream tailings type dams and the disaster that happened in Brazil should spur regulatory authorities to take interest in the management and oversight of tailings dams and possibly move to update and revise its own protocols regarding the veracity of safety audits and the improvement of engineering and safety rules around the construction and management of these facilities.

The silicosis settlement in South Africa also brings into suggestion the need to maintain consolidated comprehensive medical files on mining personnel during and after employment and enhance the protocols guiding the collection and monitoring of wellness data.

Given the appropriate infrastructure and a standardization model, governments can structure a uniform practice on how health data is collected, stored and how health checks are conducted for occupational risk related illnesses.

Such can be achieved through the introduction of standardized health files for miners that stipulate and guides the way in which health checks should be conducted throughout their careers, the intervals and the action that should be taken for diagnosed occupational illnesses.

The files should be transferable thus allowing a new employer to take up, review the status of the employee and take over the managements of the file and the wellness programme.

In such a scenario, once a person joins the mining industry, they will automatically have a digital health file created which can be hosted on a public service platform that will contain all information in relation to pre-employment health history, periodic assessment information and reports during the tenure of employment and including a comprehensive exit health assessment.

Such an approach will ensure that government through its relevant arms can easily audit health compliance protocols and this will also ensure that entities have effective oversight on the enforcement of corporate policy regarding pre employment assessments, mandatory periodic health assessments and exit assessments.

Such an approach can be vital for the integrity of data and for early detection and management of such diseases. Such a system would be beneficial to both public and private interests and requires the leadership of government, the cooperation and compliance of private entities in the sector and the collaboration of health facilities and institutions nationwide.

By preserving and curating medical information in this sector, it also sanitizes issues surrounding liability because of the improved state of record integrity and accuracy of medical information stored.

Such a digital system can also make use of blockchain encryption such that information stored in these files cannot be tampered with or altered fraudulently.

The digital system is also important to government for the analysis and monitoring of trends, effectiveness of interventions and the management of occupation risk in the mining sector.

On the other hand, mining entities can also investigate the use of proactive human resources strategies such as upskilling personnel and rotating them to other departments during employment so as to avoid prolonged exposure to toxins.

This is an effective way to minimize the duration of exposure especially for particular skills sets that require personnel to work in environments that have higher concentrations of respirable toxins over a long period of time.

While career development has largely been left to individual ambition and commitment, it may prove to be prudent for mining entities to spearhead and encourage upskilling by intentionally limiting the number of years an individual can work within certain environments.

For instance, underground miners who endure heavy concentrations of dust and respirable toxins can have the number of years they can work underground capped.

During the course of their underground tenure they must be mandated to pursue an alternative skill of their choice which will enable them to be moved to a different surface workstation once they have exhausted their “underground years”.

This will allow entities not only to tackle and limit prolonged exposure to respirable toxins but will also ready the workforce for the integration of additional automation and precision mining methods which will limit human tasks in many mining processes.

Whilst such a solution is not suitable or applicable to all skill sets, it can work for personnel whose skill set is under threat from automation.

Communities surrounding mining entities are also highly susceptible to respiratory diseases through secondary exposure and are affected by a range of illnesses such as the onset of sinuses problems, asthma and in worst cases silica induced tuberculosis and silicosis.

Read more about safety

In most instances’ respiratory illnesses in communities near mining activities are not comprehensively reported, collated and monitored with vigilance so as to provide definitive statistics on the impact of such exposure.

However, it is important to accept the presence of such risk and for governments and mining entities alike to ensure that such communities have effective institutions to assist them to manage such consequences.

Whilst public insurance safety nets only cover occupational exposure, non-occupational exposure arising from the activities of mining entities in mining areas is also a reality and needs to be accounted for.

The most effective mitigation is for governments to ensure that mining entities are strictly complying with the rules relating to the management of adverse impacts.

Secondly, it is imperative that all communities in mining areas should have access to well-resourced health care centres that are equipped to diagnose, treat and manage illnesses that result from exposure.

Ensuring that every mining region has adequate training and resourcing at primary, secondary and tertiary levels of the health care system is important to ensure that there is adequate support and treatment of persons who are at the risk of non-occupational exposure.

Institutional competence in health and environmental support institutions is a must to support the peaceful and fruitful co-existence between extractive industries and communities.

Frequent surveillance programmes, awareness initiatives and preventative and management outreach programmes for communities are important in improving detection, reducing the risk of exposure and the management of environmental impacts.

To choose a career in mining should not cost you your life or result in a diminished quality of life through ill health and neither should an individual residing in a mining region suffer death, unaided deterioration of health or have to compromise the quality of life they would have ordinarily enjoyed.

Likewise, mining should not be left to destroy or compromise the integrity of the environment for current and future generations. Before governments and entities discuss the bottom line; the health and well-being of those within the industry and those affected by the industry should be guaranteed; for this is one of the corner stones of ethical mining.

The industry needs to continually focus on improving negative impacts and governments should prioritize oversight and compliance in these areas.

As the new year starts, governments and entities are called upon to renew their focus and commitment on ensuing that their systems and protocols are proactive, comprehensive, appropriate and in tandem with the evolution of the mining sector.

Time usually reveals the misgivings, omissions and mistakes of today. The cost is not just in monetary value but in diminished capacity and potential, premature deaths, toxic environments and negativity towards the sector.

All these work against the potential of the sector to positively contribute to economies and improve the quality of lives of those who are privileged to possess mineral wealth.