Miners need more engineers to meet new tailings dam safety standard

The Brumadinho dam burst in January 2019, killing hundreds. (Image by Instituto Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente e dos Recursos Naturais Renováveis, Wikimedia Commons)

Mining companies need more skilled engineers if they are to meet strict new global safety standards for tailings dams aimed at preventing catastrophic failures like those in recent years that have killed hundreds of people and inundated nearby communities with mine waste.

“Most companies are realizing that there is a skills gap, because you have senior people moving out and not enough younger people moving in,” said mining engineering professor Priscilla Nelson, who is setting up a new tailings program at the Colorado School of Mines.

Experts said miners had not placed as much importance on tailings management, with little prestige attached to the unglamorous work of trekking to remote mine waste dams, where engineers analyze the consistency of the slurry and verify the integrity of the structure.

More than a third of the world’s tailings dams are at high risk of causing catastrophic damage to nearby communities if they crumble

In Brazil, more than 250 people died in 2019 when the Vale’s Brumadinho upstream tailings dam collapsed, flooding the nearby community with mine waste.

The disaster, which came not long after another fatal tailings dam collapse in Brazil, prompted a year-long effort by an industry, investor and U.N. panel, which launched the global tailings standard on Wednesday.

In June, Reuters exclusively reported details of the standard, which the International Council of Mining and Metals (ICMM) says its members will adhere to within three to five years depending on tailings dams’ risk classification. The standard is not binding but the panel expects that miners will adhere to it.

ICMM CEO Tom Butler said members that are “consistently non-compliant” with the new standard may face expulsion from the organisation.

“We want to see every company that has a tailings facility adopt the standard,” he said.

Bruno Oberle, chair of the tailings review panel, said the standard does not however apply to abandoned tailings dams with no owner.

Lifting their game

Tailings dams, some of which tower dozens of meters high and stretch for several kilometers, are the most common waste-disposal method for miners.

The industry will struggle to implement the new safety rules without new training and investment in tailings management and academic courses to feed a dwindling pipeline of new talent.

A submission published with the standard said deep technical know-how is concentrated among a “relatively small” group of tailings specialists globally. After that there is a “rapid fall-off” of expertise among management and other key players, like regulators.

“There is a lack of resources within the mining industry to manage tailings,” said John Howchin, secretary-general of the Council on Ethics of the Swedish National Pension Funds, which helped craft the standard.

Brumadinho showed how devastating a tailings failure could be. Brazilian state prosecutors have charged Vale’s former CEO with homicide over the disaster.

“Any more failures – no matter whose mine it is – will affect the whole industry. Everyone has to lift their game,” said Andy Fourie, director of a new tailings management training program at the University of Western Australia.

BHP and Rio Tinto each contributed 2 million Australian dollars ($1.43 million) to the program, which will offer training for free to their employees and, for a fee, to other mining companies.

Rio Tinto said the new global standard would likely increase demand for tailings expertise across the industry and said it would “prioritise our resources to the facilities with the highest consequence classifications.”

More than a third of the world’s tailings dams are at high risk of causing catastrophic damage to nearby communities if they crumble, a Reuters analysis of company data found last year.

Adam Matthews, director of ethics and engagement at the Church of England pensions board, said on Wednesday companies that don’t take the standard up will present a “very clear risk” to investors.

Angelica Andrade, a Brumadinho community member, gave an emotional tribute to her sister who died in the disaster.

“I don’t care how much it’s going to cost to implement the standard,” she said. “It is time for the mining sector to stop being all about profits, and act with humanity.”

Environmental NGO Earthworks said the standard does not provide sufficient safeguards for communities as, among other things, it does not include a minimum recommended distance between dams and neighbouring communities.

(By Helen Reid and Jeff Lewis; Editing by David Gregorio and Bernadette Baum)

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