Fallout from the Brumadinho mine tailings disaster in Brazil in January 2019. Source: Israel Defense Forces/Flickr

The Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management was launched on 5 August 2020, as the first global standard on tailings management that can be applied to existing and future tailings facilities, wherever they are and whoever operates them. 

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The Standard was developed through an independent process – the Global Tailings Review – which was co-convened in March 2019 by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) and International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM).

The Global Tailings Review process was prompted in response to the catastrophic failure of a tailings storage facility at Vale’s Corrego do Feijão mine in Brumadinho, Brazil, on 25 January 2019, where 259 people have been confirmed dead, and 11 remain missing.

The review involved extensive public consultation with affected communities, government representatives, investors, multilateral organisations and mining industry stakeholders and is informed by existing best practice and findings from past tailings facility failures.

This is a stark reminder that, while the mining and metals industry has come a long way in improving how it operates, there’s still much more that can be done to safeguard lives, improve performance and demonstrate transparency.

The Standard at a glance

Strengthening current practices in the mining industry by integrating social, environmental, local economic and technical considerations, the Standard covers the entire tailings facility lifecycle – from site selection, design and construction, through management and monitoring, to closure and post-closure. 

Read more: Tailings management: What has changed since Brumadinho?

With an ambition of zero harm to people and the environment, the Standard significantly raises the bar for the industry to achieve strong social, environmental and technical outcomes. It elevates accountability to the highest organisational levels and adds new requirements for independent oversight.

The Standard also establishes clear expectations around global transparency and disclosure requirements, helping to improve understanding by interested stakeholders.

The co-conveners have each endorsed it and call for its broad and effective implementation across the industry:  

  • UNEP will support governments that wish to incorporate and build upon this Standard into their national or state legislation and policies. 
  • PRI, representing US$103.4 trillion in assets under management, will be developing investor expectations to support all mining companies in implementing the Standard. 
  • ICMM member companies will implement the Standard as a commitment of membership, which includes robust site-level validation and third-party assessments.  

Dr Bruno Oberle, chair of the Global Tailings Review, says that the Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management sets a precedent for the safe management of tailings facilities, towards the goal of zero harm. 

“The catastrophic dam collapse at Vale’s Córrego de 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. I am particularly pleased to deliver a document that reflects and addresses the complexity and multi-disciplinary nature of sound tailings management.

“It has been a privilege to lead this work and I now call on all mining companies, governments and investors to use the Standard and to continue to work together to improve the safety of tailings facilities globally. It is my hope that the Standard will be supported by an independent body that can maintain the quality and further refine and strengthen the Standard over time.”

Ligia Noronha, director of UNEP’s Economy Division, says the approach to mine tailings facilities must place safety first by making environmental and human safety a priority in management actions and on-the-ground operations.

“The Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management is an important milestone towards the ambition of zero harm to people and the environment from tailings facilities. Its impact will depend upon its uptake and UNEP will continue to be engaged in its rollout.

“We are encouraged by the ICMM role and commitments on Standard implementation and call on the rest of the mining industry, and those that finance and invest in the mining industry, to make a similar commitment. In order to maintain the integrity of the Standard, it is crucial that a non-industry organisation identify and pursue the most effective implementation model such as the establishment of an independent entity. To this end, UNEP will continue to engage in dialogue with other interested stakeholders to explore potential solutions,” Noronha says.

Read more: OPINION PIECE: Tailings management – Zero tolerance for failure not negotiable

Tom Butler, CEO of the ICMM, says that the ICMM and its members – representing about a third of the global industry – have an unwavering commitment to safer tailings facility management. ICMM’s Council welcomes the Standard 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. 

“The Standard will be integrated into ICMM’s existing member commitments, with members committing that all facilities with ‘Extreme’ or ‘Very high’ potential consequences will be in conformance with the Standard within three years of today, and all other facilities within five years,” says Butler.

The Standard covers six key topics: affected communities; integrated knowledge base; design, construction, operation and monitoring of tailings facilities; management and governance; emergency response and long-term recovery; and public disclosure and access to information.

These topics contain 15 Principles and 77 specific auditable requirements for operators to adhere to. Today’s launch of the Standard is supported by two accompanying documents, published independently by the Global Tailings Review chair: an in-depth compendium of papers that explore various operational and governance issues related to tailings, and a report on the feedback from the public consultation. 

Mining industry shows its support and commitment

The Minerals Council South Africa and a number of its members are members of the ICMM, and engaged actively with the Global Tailings Review during its consultations. Compliance with the Standard is to become mandatory for ICMM members.

However, the Minerals Council further calls on all its members to study the Standard and to work towards ensuring that their tailings management systems are in line with those contained in the Standard.

Moreover, gold mining companies Gold Fields and Barrick have welcomed the Standard as a significant step forward for the safer management of tailings storage facilities (TSF).

As a member of the ICMM, Gold Fields helped formulate the Standard, fully endorses it and will now commence with its implementation through its ICMM membership commitments.

“We will now begin the process of aligning our already stringent TSF design and governance processes with the Standard within the agreed timeframe,” says Gold Fields CEO Nick Holland.

As at end-2019, the Gold Fields Group encompassed 34 TSFs, of which 12 were active. All Gold Fields’ TSFs are subject to independent, external audits at three-year intervals.

Depending on the size of future operations and local regulations, as well as topographical, hydrological and hydrogeological conditions, Gold Fields will make increasing use of filtered, dry-stacked tailings. This system has been adopted for the company’s Salares Norte project in Chile, where construction is set to commence in Q4 2020.

Meanwhile, Barrick, which also participated in the process, said this rigorous, independent and multi-stakeholder review would improve tailings management practices across the industry and reduce the potentially catastrophic risk to people and the environment of tailings dam failures.

Group sustainability executive Grant Beringer says Barrick fully endorsed the principles embodied in the new standard as it had long been committed to ensuring that its tailings facilities meet global best practice standards for safety.

“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. Our facilities are meticulously engineered and regularly inspected, with special attention given to those in regions with high rainfall or seismic activity,” he says.

“Our tailings and heap leach management standard comprises six levels of inspection and surety. These range from high-tech monitoring technology, including piezometers, inclinometers, drone and satellite surveys, to movement detection and drainage measurement. Internal specialists conduct regular assurance audits and our tailings management is also reviewed by an independent tailings review committee composed of internationally recognized experts in this field.”