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Metallurgical Society – Recent Developments with Global Tailings Standard

Written by Peter Colvin

There have been developments in the Tailings Storage Facilities (TSF) space.

A number of readers may be aware of the developments, but this update provides a summary of the developments for those who are not aware of them. The data below has been extracted from publication from various websites.

Since 2014 there have been nine recorded tailings dam failures resulting in the death of 292 people and having a major impact on the environment. These incidences confirmed that the industry can, and needs to do a lot more to protect lives and the environment in which mines operate.  The more recent larger incidences are:

  • Mt Polley in Canada (2014), no loss of life;
  • Mariana in Brazil (2015), 19 people killed, tailing runout 637km; and
  • Brumadinho in Brazil (2019), 270 people killed.

As a result of the Brumadinho disaster, the Investor Mining and Tailings Safety Initiative (IMTSI) was established in April 2019, and governed through a steering committee by the Church of England Pensions Board and the Swedish Ethics Council. The total group consists of 96 investors with more than USD 10 trillion in assets under management. Investors Mining and Tailings Safety Initiative met with senior mining executives and leading experts to review the international progress on mining and tailings safety.

There were three interventions requests that eventuated from the discussions.

  • Number 1 – Calling for an independent safety standard
  • Number 2 – Letter requesting greater disclosure
  • Number 3 – Setting up a global tailings database

 Intervention number 1– calling for an independent safety standard.

A global review was announced and co-convened by the International Council of Mining and Metals (ICMM), an international organization dedicated to a safe, fair and sustainable mining and metals industry, along with the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). A discussion document was drafted in 2019, with subsequent public consultation on the Global Tailings Standard (the Standard). This public consultation was conducted via online surveys and in-country consultation across a range of mining jurisdictions in the northern and southern hemispheres. The consultation period ended in December 2019. Based on the industry feedback on the draft document, the Standard will be developed in the first quarter of 2020, and anticipated to be finalised in the second quarter of 2020.

As a broad outline the draft Standard focuses on six key topics as follows:

  1. Knowledge base – requires mine operators to develop knowledge about the social, economic and environmental context of a proposed or existing tailings facility;
  2. Affected communities – focuses on the people living and working nearby. It requires human rights due diligence and meaningful engagement of project-affected people;
  3. Design, construction, operation and monitoring of tailings facilities – aims to review design, construction, operation and monitoring of tailings facilities;
  4. Management and governance – focuses on ongoing management and governance of tailings facilities. It defines a number of key roles, essential systems and critical processes;
  5. Emergency response and long-term recovery – covers emergency preparedness and response in the event of a disaster, the re-establishment of ecosystems, and the long-term recovery of affected communities; and
  6. Public disclosure and access to information – requires public access to information about tailings facilities in order for all stakeholders to be informed of the risks and impacts, management and mitigation plans, and performance monitoring.

While all three entities backing the panel have said that its work must be independent, they each must approve the final findings.

Intervention number 2 – requesting detailed disclosure on tailings storage facilities. 

A letter was distributed to 651 mines, including oil and gas companies that have exposure to tailings through their oil sands operations, asking for greater disclosure about a number of issues. The questionnaires were submitted at the end of June 2019. There is some interesting information compiled from the questionnaires and a presentation can be found on the following website.

Intervention number 3 – setting up a global tailings database

Historically there has been no consolidated global public register of the estimated 18,000 tailings dams worldwide, of which approximately 3,500 are currently active. Without a global register, the precise scale of the risk involved is not clear, nor is it understood which company has responsibility for which facilities. Recently GRID-Arendal built the Global Tailings Portal  (, a public, searchable database with detailed information on more than 1,700 mine tailings dams around the world.


The global review will also consider governance options to ensure uptake of and compliance with the International Standard. It is intended that the International Standard will complement the existing National Tailings Guidelines, not replace them. Beyond the Standard, the review may also make broader recommendations for industry, governments, international institutions and the investment community to secure the safe operation of tailings storage facilities. Ideally the standard should be taken up by the entire mining sector and not just the International Council of Mining and Metals (ICMM) members. This is because many mining companies in China and India, the world’s two-largest countries by population, are not ICMM members.

It is envisaged that the implementation of the International Standard would be similar to the International Cyanide Code where audits, conducted by independent third party professionals, are undertaken every few years to verify compliance to standards.

More information on the draft Standard and dam failure technical reports can be obtained from the following websites:

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