Catastrophic mine waste spills increasing in frequency, severity and cost world-wide

On 1st anniversary of North America’s worst mine waste disaster, failures shown to be global trend attributable to industry & regulatory failure to implement best practices

July 29th — On the 1st anniversary of North America’s worst mining waste spill, a new interdisciplinary analysis reveals that such catastrophic spills are increasing in frequency, severity and cost. The Risk, Public Liability, and Economics of Tailings Storage Facility Failures shows that modern metal mining techniques have driven the creation of increasingly risky mine waste facilities, enabled by regulators that have failed to require best practices to minimize financial and environmental risk.

In the wake of the Mount Polley tailings dam failure in British Columbia one year ago, Lindsay Newland Bowker, Director, Bowker Associates, Science & Research In The Public Interest, and David Chambers, Ph.D., a mining technical specialist, co-authored the report whose primary findings include:

  • The rate of serious tailings dam failures is increasing. Half (33 of 67) of serious tailings dam failures in the last 70 years occurred in the 20 years between 1990 and 2009.
  • The increasing rate of tailings dam failures is propelled by, not in spite of, modern mining practices. The increasing rate of tailings dam failures is directly related to the the increasing number of TSFs larger than 5 million cubic meter capacity necessitated to allow the economic extraction of lower grades of ore.
  • 11 catastrophic failures are predicted globally from 2010 to 2019. Predicted total cost of these 11 failures is approximately $6 billion.
  • The average cost of the these catastrophic tailings dam failures is $543 million. Regulator attempts to recoup cleanup costs from mining operators reveal — through court records and other official documents — dollar totals for clean up and recovery.
  • Mining companies cannot afford, and cannot secure insurance to cover, the costs of catastrophic failures: Losses, both economic and ecological, are in large part either permanent and non-recoverable, or recovery — to the extent physically possible — funded by public monies.

“More mining waste disasters like Mount Polley are inevitable,” said David Chambers, report co-author and director of the Center of Science in Public Participation. He continued, “If mining practices continue as usual, we are going to see more severe spills, more frequently, that will cost the public hundreds of millions to billions of dollars to clean up.”

“Our research shows that most catastrophic failures of tailings dams in are the result of poorly-informed, consciously-made business and management decisions by miners who then refuse to accept the public loss and consequence of those decisions," said report co-author Lindsay Newland Bowker. She continued, “Regulatory systems also contribute by not recognizing deviation from accepted practice and the unfolding of financial risk as it evolves escalating environmental risk to a level of public disaster.”

“As a result of the Mount Polley investigation, mining companies and regulators know they have to change mine waste disposal practices to minimize the risk of future disasters,” said Chambers. He continued, “Unfortunately, as evidenced by the recent approvals for mines in the Alaska/British Columbia transboundary area, they are failing to do so.” Mining tailings are the waste left over after metal ore has been processed. They are disposed of by dumping behind huge earthen tailings dams. On August 4, 2015, the Mount Polley Mine failed, releasing an estimated 25 million cubic meters of waste into the Fraser River watershed.

About the authors:

David M. Chambers, Ph.D., P. Geop.
David Chambers is the president of the Center for Science in Public Participation, a non-profit corporation formed to provide technical assistance on mining and water quality to public interest groups and tribal governments.

Dr. Chambers has 40 years of experience in mineral exploration and development – 15 years of technical and management experience in the mineral exploration industry, and for the past 25 years he has served as an advisor on the environmental effects of mining projects both nationally and internationally. He has Professional Engineering Degree in Physics from the Colorado School of Mines, a Master of Science Degree in Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley, and is a registered professional geophysicist in California (# GP 972). Dr. Chambers received his Ph.D. in Environmental Planning at Berkeley. His continuing research focus is on the intersection of science and technology with public policy and natural resource management.

Lindsay Newland Bowker, CPCU, ARM
Lindsay Bowker is Principal of Bowker Associates Science & Research In The Public Interest which provide pro bono research and analysis focusing on environmental issues of potentially catastrophic non remediable environmental loss.

Ms. Bowker was Risk Manager for New York City Department of Environmental Protection (1986-1998), member of the New York State Banking Board (1986-1997), 1994 President of the New York Chapter of Chartered Property and Casualty Underwriters, and Environmental Committee member of the New York Risk and Insurance Management Society.