Global mine standards rest on voluntary compliance

An aerial shot of a massive dam holding in mine tailings surrounded by spruce forests and rolling hills.
At the Red Chris Mine, a dam contains a tailings pond. that collects mine waste. Northwest B.C., 2017. (Courtesy of Garth Lenz)

An effort to create global industry standards for mine waste has emerged almost six years to the day after a massive tailings dam at the Mount Polley Mine failed in British Columbia. But there are concerns that the new standards don’t go far enough to protect communities downstream.

The Global Tailings Review effort launched more than a year ago. Its catalyst was the deadly dam collapse last year at a Brazilian mine near Brumadinho that killed hundreds of people.

Closer to home, British Columbia’s Mount Polley Mine Disaster in 2014 wasn’t deadly. But its aftermath revealed what critics saw as weaknesses in Canada’s regulations that allowed a mine company to pollute a river and escape fines or prosecution. 

A broad panel of industry, international civic organizations and United Nations experts studied both disasters. Speaking a year ago, Elisa Tonda of the U.N.’s environment program said expectations for the new standards would be high.

The review will have to create a very strong and powerful industry standard that will raise the bar from current practices and current approaches,” she said in a statement.

On August 5, the standards were released. The 21-page document says its goal is “zero harm to people and the environment with zero tolerance” for fatalities. The U.N. says it will work on translating these ideals into national standards. But in the meantime, Charlie Cobb, Alaska’s dam safety engineer says he doesn’t see many practical takeaways.

I don’t mind referencing federal documents as a state regulator, but I have a hard time with referencing international guidance,” Cobb told CoastAlaska.

Not that he doesn’t see a need. He serves as the chairman of a committee developing uniform guidelines for tailings dams in the U.S. to supplement existing standards in the National Dam Safety Program.

And after Mount Polley failed, you know, I raised my hand in the board meeting and said, ‘You know, we probably ought to step up to the plate and start looking at tailings dams a little more closely.’”

That process is still underway. But the just-released global standards include a number of lofty principles, like the respect for human rights for affected communities downstream.

None of this high-sounding language is binding by any court of law or government regulator. And that’s a problem says David Chambers, a mining consultant with the Center for Science in Public Participation in Bozeman, Montana.

There isn’t any teeth,” he said in an interview. “It’s all voluntary compliance. And I think more importantly, there’s sort of a lack of performance standards.”

And by that, he says, “we’d hoped that there would be things like recommended factors of safety which aren’t in there.”

So how are these global standards supposed to work? An industry group called the International Council on Mining and Metals was one of the key players in crafting the language. It represents about a third of the world’s mining industry.

Asked how ICMM would police its membership, the trade group’s CEO Tom Butler conceded that they’re a voluntary organization, not a regulator.

But ultimately if a member is consistently not complying or bringing ICMM into disrepute, there are mechanisms that exist within the ICMM articles of association for expulsion,” he said Wednesday.

Alaska’s largest mining industry group says it’s taking its cues from national trade associations.

“All of Alaska’s large operating mines have memberships in one or both of these organizations, and have provided comment throughout the process,” wrote Alaska Miners Association‘s Deantha Skibinski in a statement to CoastAlaska.

“But more importantly,” she said, “Alaska’s large operating mines have had their Tailings Storage Facilities (TSFs) approved and monitored throughout the entire process – from site selection, design and construction, management and monitoring, and post closure. The various approval processes include significant environmental review and public participation opportunities.”

The catalyst for raising the standards for mine tailing storage globally comes from tribes and green groups but also big international investors. Managers of pension funds have invested heavily in global mining operations, and catastrophic dam failures like Brazil’s have been a financial liability that have played havoc with stock values.

“Because when these tailings dam fails these guys’ stock value goes through the floor — it gets hammered. And the investors are the ones losing that money,” said Cobb, Alaska’s dam safety engineer. “And so the investors finally said, ‘Well, what what are we investing in here? That there’s all this risk, but we don’t know about.’ And so they forced their member organizations to disclose their tailings dam inventories.”

A mined-out pit used to store wastewater and milling leftovers at British Columbia's Mount Polley Mine is expected to fill up in April. The B.C. government just issued a permit allowing treated pit water to be discharged into a nearby lake. (Photo by Monica Lamb-Yorsk/Williams Lake Tribune)
A mined-out pit used to store wastewater and milling leftovers at British Columbia’s Mount Polley Mine is expected to fill up in April. The B.C. government just issued a permit allowing treated pit water to be discharged into a nearby lake. (Photo by Monica Lamb-Yorsk/Williams Lake Tribune)

That’s created a searchable online database. It includes entries like the Red Chris Mine, an open pit gold and copper mine in British Columbia that’s upstream from the Stikine River watershed. The mine was developed by Imperial Metals, the same firm responsibility for Mount Polley.

It’s the presence of B.C.’s booming mining sector on Alaska’s doorstep that has a coalition of tribes, conservationists and fishermen nervous.

We’re gonna have to be watching the Red Chris lake of poison, you know, they call it a tailings storage facility. But that’s gonna be there forever,” said Frederick Olsen Jr. the Sitka-based executive director of the Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission. It’s a regional effort by tribes to watchdog mining on both sides of the border.

“Our people have been here for thousands of years and we want to be here for thousands of years into the future. And so we have to look out for this stuff,” Olsen said.

Olsen and other Alaskans who are “looking out” across the border are encouraged by the standards set in the Global Tailings Review, but plan to remain vigilant. The best way to deal with tailings dam failures, most agree, is to prevent them.