UN urges miners to better regulations needed to prevent disasters

Colorado’s Animas River turned a shade of yellow after the Gold King Mine spill in August 2015. This accident was caused by a government agency, not a mining company. (Image from archives.)

An increase in the frequency of sometimes deadly mining waste disasters over the past decade confirms that governments and resource companies need to better protections for those who live close to polluted material storage sites, a new report by the United Nations says.

According to “Mine Tailings Storage: Safety Is No Accident” study, published by the UN Environment Program (UNEP), most of the 40 significant mine waste accidents registered since 2007 have involved dams or other storage areas that failed, releasing torrents of polluted water.

The UNEP report shows that most of the 40 significant mine waste accidents in the past decade have involved dams or other storage areas that failed.

Among those disasters, the agency highlighted a 2015 dam collapse at a Brazilian iron ore mine that killed 19 people and the Gold King mine spill, which leaked waste into rivers in three Western states of the US.

The report makes two central recommendations to help the industry eliminate tailing dam failures. It calls for a “safety-first” approach to tailings storage that should be reflected in both management actions and on-the-ground operations.

It also suggests establishing a UN Environment stakeholder forum to facilitate international strengthening of tailings dam regulation.

Advocacy groups applauded the report and its suggestions, especially the call for governments and mining companies to adopt a “zero-failure” goal for tailings .

“This timely and much needed UNEP assessment should act as wake-up call for all States involved in regulating the mining industry. Safety must come before costs,” said Ugo Lapointe from MiningWatch Canada.

Waste storage sites are “like ticking time bombs,” said Payal Sampat with the U.S.-based group Earthworks, adding that governments and the mining industry have done too little to prevent accidents.