THE LOOMING RISK OF TAILINGS DAMS

A tailings pond near the Syncrude oilsands mining operations, seen last fall. The oilsands region's tailings ponds — some of the largest in the world — now cover 176 square kilometres and hold enough liquid to fill the equivalent of 390,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

“We just don’t know enough about the impact of tailings ponds on wildlife, including birds, to keep adding more.”

More than 240 people died this past January in Brazil when a Vale-owned tailings dam collapsed, unleashing a torrent of mud and mining waste on the countryside and the small town of Villa Ferteco, a kilometer (0.62 miles) away.

The Church of England invests in mining companies through its pensions for retired clergy. In the wake of the Vale tragedy, the Church and other funds with investments valued at about $14 trillion requested information from mining companies on their tailings dams, which are embankments constructed near mines to store mining waste in a liquid or solid form. The data from the companies has not been independently verified.

The investor review, which found at least 166 dams have had stability issues in the past, relied on companies’ disclosures about their dams holding tailings. Most Chinese and Indian miners did not provide information, leaving a significant hole in efforts to create a global picture of safety risks posed by these dams and avoid another disaster.

The Church of England and its investor partners said they plan to ask for fresh data from miners on a regular basis and release updates publicly.

The data show more than a third of the world’s tailings dams are at high risk of causing catastrophic damage to nearby communities if they crumble; that more tailings dams have been built in the past decade then during any previous decade; and that South Africa has the largest number of tailings dams built using an architectural method considered unsafe by many engineers.

The data was compiled by Reuters from publicly posted responses on corporate websites within the past three months to a survey sent out by the church this past spring to 726 mining companies around the world. Of these, over half did not respond or publish tailings information on their websites.

A quarter of the companies told the church-led investor initiative they did not have tailings facilities, and 38 companies requested more time or have not yet made their responses public, according to the church.

The Reuters data compilation reflects disclosures from 89 companies with mines in over 60 countries.

…There are more than 1,700 dams holding mine waste all over the world, and these are just the ones reported to the Church of England; it’s not known how many there are in total. MORE

 

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