UN Environment Calls for “Zero-Failure” Approach to Mine Waste Storage
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The UN Environment Rapid Response Assessment report, titled ‘Mining Tailings Storage: Safety is no accident,’ addresses rising global concerns about the safety, management and impacts of storing and managing large volumes of mining waste.

In addition to calling for a UN Environment oversight body, the report emphasizes the need for a “safety-first” approach to tailings storage.

12 November 2017: The UN Environment Rapid Response Assessment report titled, ‘Mining Tailings Storage: Safety is no accident,’ addresses rising global concerns about the safety, management and impacts of storing and managing large volumes of mining waste. Ahead of the Third Meeting of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA 3), which will focus on pollution, the report calls for the establishment of a UN Environment stakeholder forum to facilitate international strengthening of tailings dam regulation.

The assessment report, which was co-published by UN Environment and GRID-Arendal, a UN Environment collaborating center, notes that large tailings dam failures can release a “tsunami-like wave” of mine waste capable of destroying everything in its path. Leaking and collapsing tailings dams can result in long-term environmental damage.

Tailings dam failures can release a “tsunami-like wave” of mine waste capable of destroying everything in its path.

The report lists a total of 40 tailing dam failures across Europe, Asia, and North and South America over the past decade alone, emphasizing that while the number of incidents has declined over the years, “the number of serious failures has increased, despite advances in the engineering knowledge that can prevent them.” In one example, the report discusses the continuing impact of the collapse of a waste dam at the Germano iron-ore mine in southeastern Brazil in November 2015, which killed 19 people. The report notes that fishing communities near the mouth of the still-contaminated Rio Doce on the Atlantic coast continue to struggle as a result of “Brazil’s worst-ever environmental disaster.”

In addition to calling for a UN Environment oversight body, the report emphasizes the need for a “safety-first” approach to tailings storage. It urges regulators, industry and communities to adopt a “zero-failure” objective in which safety attributes should be evaluated separately from economic considerations, “and cost should not be the determining factor.”

Among specific actions, the report suggests: establishing a database of mine sites; identifying best practices and developing technical solutions to the main causes of failure; and strengthening regulation, to include, for instance, independent monitoring of waste dams and the enforcement of financial and criminal sanctions for non-compliance.

The assessment also highlights how mining firms can adopt cleaner processes, new technologies and re-use materials to reduce waste.

These issues will be the focus of a UNEA 3 side event on pollution in the extractives industry. UNEA 3 will convene in Nairobi, Kenya, from 4-6 December 2017, under the overarching theme, ‘Towards a Pollution-Free Planet.’ [UN Environment Press Release] [Publication: Mining Tailings Storage: Safety is no accident] [UNEA 3 Side Event: ‘Taking action to reduce pollution in the extractive sector’]


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