Interview – Tom Butler, former ICMM CEO: Holistic approach needed to minimize risk at tailings dams

Tom Butler, former ICMM CEO (Credit: Global Tailings Review)

In the wake of the Brumadinho dam tragedy in Brazil in 2019 that killed 270 people, the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) conducted a multi-stakeholder review with investors and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), which resulted in the Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management, which was launched in August 2020.

An investigation led by the Investor Mining & Tailings Safety Initiative revealed that around a tenth of tailings dams – 166 of the 1,635 dams studied — have had safety issues in the past. Considering there are more than 3,500 tailings dams globally, the challenge at hand will require buy-in from all parties.

“I have spoken to a number of companies and private equity funds that invest in smaller companies, who have made it clear to the companies they invest in that the Standard must be adhered to,” Tom Butler, former ICMM CEO said in an interview with Global Business Reports:

GBR: The Global Industry Standard on Tailings was launched in August 2020. What were the contributing factors that led to its creation?

Butler: Everyone will have heard of the Brumadinho tragedy of January 2019. That was the second big tailings catastrophe in Brazil, after the Samarco disaster in November 2015. After Samarco, we commissioned a technical review, involving ICMM and some engineering companies. However, after Brumadinho we decided it was necessary to conduct something that was much more holistic to make sure we were doing everything we could to minimize the risk of that happening again.

We proposed a multi-stakeholder review and the Church of England (C of E) and Swedish Council on Ethics (which represents the Swedish sovereign wealth fund) were thinking along the same lines on behalf of investors, so we teamed up with them, representing the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI, a UN-supported international network of investors managing more than $100 trillion in assets). Together with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), who was representing countries and implicitly their citizens, the multi-stakeholder approach was formed and terms of the review were agreed on.

GBR: Can you provide a brief overview of the Standard and what it entails?

Butler: The Global Tailings Standard has been looked at from every different angle: governance, technical requirements, disclosure and transparency requirement, initial impact assessments, and the full range of environmental, social and technical aspects. Comprising six topic areas, 15 principles and 77 auditable requirements, the Standard will ultimately be supported by implementation protocols that will provide detailed guidance for certification or assurance as applicable, and for equivalence with other standards.

The Standard’s structure is logical, not chronological, and is underpinned by an integrated approach to tailings management, which was the overarching objective of the panel. Specifics on the different topic areas can be found here.

GBR: Have you seen noticeable improvements in tailings management since the Brumadinho tragedy?

Butler: We have seen a lot more focus. After Brumadinho, every responsible operator conducted an audit to see where they stood. The ICMM members have committed to implement this standard and fast track the assets that would have higher consequence if they collapsed. I have also spoken to a number of companies and private equity funds that invest in smaller companies, who have made it clear to the companies they invest in that the Standard must be adhered to. At the same time, the UN are advocating for this with governments. The writing is on the wall for anyone who thinks that they can get by without paying proper attention to this.

GBR: Do you think the lack of high-level expertise on tailings in relation to the number of tailings facilities is harming the industry?

Butler: We have seen a lot more focus. After Brumadinho, every responsible operator conducted an audit to see where they stood. The ICMM members have committed to implement this standard and fast track the assets that would have higher consequence if they collapsed. I have also spoken to a number of companies and private equity funds that invest in smaller companies, who have made it clear to the companies they invest in that the Standard must be adhered to. At the same time, the UN are advocating for this with governments. The writing is on the wall for anyone who thinks that they can get by without paying proper attention to this.

GBR: Do you think the lack of high-level expertise on tailings in relation to the number of tailings facilities is harming the industry?

Butler: The shortage of expertise is certainly an issue, and that is why the Standard places a lot of emphasis on and articulates very clearly the requirement for independent oversight. For example, the requirement for independent tailings review boards at various stages in the process of design, operation and closure. Then the question becomes, is there enough expertise around the world to staff those tailings review boards? The creation of the Standard should encourage people to consider this as a career, and one of the points on our work program for the next couple of years is to stimulate this interest. There are already some universities that are considering masters courses in this area, and the ICMM is looking at ways to train employees of member companies. Across the board compliance will not happen overnight, but the Standard aims to accelerate this process.

GBR: What are the next steps for the Global Tailings Review and the ICMM for 2021?

Butler: The next big piece of work on tailings is the implementation guidance. The guidance will have two key components: support for anyone that is trying to implement the Standard, and secondly, how companies can improve engineering practices and take a risk-informed performance-based approach to the management of tailings facilities.

More broadly, we are looking at how to support the recovery as we come out of the pandemic. The next challenge will be economic, especially in emerging markets, and we’ll be looking at how to play a key role in supporting community resilience and maximizing employment opportunities at a local level.

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(This article first appeared in the Global Business Reports)

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