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Current Issues - Tailings Dam Safety

(last updated 10 Dec 2016)

Contents:

see also:
ChronologiesLast update
Major tailings dam failuresSep. 22, 2016
Uranium mill tailings dam failuresNov. 19, 2012
Site-specific pagesLast update
The Mount Polley tailings dam failure (Aug. 4, 2014, British Columbia, Canada)Dec. 18, 2015
The Kolontár red mud dam failure (Oct. 4, 2010, Hungary)Dec. 25, 2010
Dam failure of decantation pond at Comurhex uranium conversion plant, Malvési (Mar 2004, Aude, France)Mar. 4, 2006
The San Marcelino tailings dam spill (Aug/Sep 2002, Zambales, Philippines)Sep. 12, 2002
The Sebastião das Águas Claras tailings dam failure (June 2001, Minas Gerais, Brazil)Sep. 9, 2002
The Inez coal tailings dam failure (Oct 2000, Kentucky, USA)Jan. 18, 2008
The Aitik tailings dam failure (Sep 2000, Gällivare, Sweden)Apr. 14, 2005
The Aurul S.A. tailings dam failure (Jan 2000, Baia Mare, Romania)Jan. 8, 2001
The Los Frailes tailings dam failure (Apr 1998, Aznalcóllar, Spain)Feb. 27, 2015
The Stava tailings dam failure (July 1985, Trento, Italy)May 13, 2009


Current Issues

Industry organization ICMM commits its members to improvements meant to prevent tailings dam failures, totally ignoring senior experts' demand to abandon wet tailings disposal for good

In the aftermath of the Samarco tailings dam collapse in Brazil on Nov. 5, 2015, the International Council on Mining & Metals (ICMM), has issued a position statement on "Preventing catastrophic failure of tailings storage facilities". ICMM is an industry organization set up by 23 major mining companies, including uranium miners Anglogold Ashanti, Areva Mines, BHP Billiton, Gold Fields, and Rio Tinto. It sets up mining practice standards to which their members commit to adhere to.
The ICMM position statement completely ignores the conclusion of the expert panel that investigated the causes of the Mount Polley tailings dam failure in British Columbia on August 4, 2014. This panel comprised of senior experts had stated that the mining industry cannot continue business as usual, but rather must abandon the disaster-prone practice of dumping wet tailings in surface dams.
> View/Download: Position statement on preventing catastrophic failure of tailings storage facilities , ICMM, December 2016
> Download: Review of tailings management guidelines and recommendations for improvement , ICMM, December 2016

Tailings dam breaches increasing in frequency, study

A new report available at Earthworks Action notes that catastrophic tailings spills are occurring with increasing frequency around the world. Moreover, the new study, The Risk, Public Liability, and Economics of Tailings Storage Facility Failures, points out the failures of regulators and engineers to create truly best practices to minimize financial and environmental risks.
The report says that half the serious dam failures, 33 of 67 in the past 70 years, have occurred in the 20 years between 1990 and 2009. It predicts there will be a further 11 failures costing approximately $6 billion between 2010 and 2019. The average cost of each spill is $543 million, as measured by the attempts of regulators to recoup cleanup costs from mine operators.
The study says, "The increasing rate of tailings dam failures is propelled by, not in spite of, modern mining practices." The size of tailings management facilities, particularly those in excess of 5 million m3, is to blame. Such large ponds have grown to allow mining of lower grades of ore.
The outlook is gloomy: "Mining companies cannot afford, and cannot secure insurance to cover, the costs of catastrophic failures. Losses, both economic and ecological, are in large part either permanent and non-recoverable, or recovery - to the extent physically possible - funded by public monies [in the US]." (Canadian Mining Journal July 29, 2015)
> Download: The Risk, Public Liability, & Economics Of Tailings Storage Facility Failures , by Lindsay Newland Bowker and David M. Chambers, July 21, 2015 (748kB PDF)

 

Seismic hazard at Kennecott Utah Copper Corp. Magna tailings pile (Utah, USA)

Kennecott tailings pose no threat to homes, report says

If the Salt Lake Valley is shaken by a major earthquake, Kennecott's mine-tailings impoundment on the north side of this unincorporated burb won't threaten any homes. The soupy sediment may wash across State Road 201 and perhaps onto the outer edge of a nearby golf course, but it won't travel any farther. So says an investigative report released this month by the Salt Lake County Kennecott Tailings Impoundment Committee, formed nearly two years ago to determine whether Kennecott's tailings pile posed a threat to residential Magna.
A Salt Lake Tribune investigation found that Kennecott, starting in the late 1980s, concealed the possibility that its mine-waste impoundment could fail during a massive quake and inundate nearby Green Meadows Estates. But that impoundment, the study has concluded, no longer endangers the neighborhood.
The mine's tailings, in a 7.25 quake, likely would travel farther than Kennecott had suspected. The copper giant estimated that the slurry would run no farther than 190 feet [58 m] and stop in the westbound lanes of State Road 201. The committee's independent engineer, Tetra Tech, determined that the tailings could spill twice that far, traveling 428 feet [130 m] across the highway. Still, the sediment would reach no homes.
If, the study found, Kennecott's impoundment were to suffer a less-substantial quake -- a 6.5 magnitude temblor or less -- the dikes are expected to hold. (Salt Lake Tribune Jan. 15, 2010)

> View Salt Lake County: Magna Tailings Study

Kennecott Utah Copper Corp. concealed seismic hazard at Magna tailings pile for two decades

Kennecott Utah Copper Corp. pledged March 27, 2008, to have independent experts double-check the safety of its old mine-waste impoundment, a 1.8-billion-ton pile that for years was judged to be vulnerable if a big earthquake hit. Company President Andrew Harding said he could understand why some residents distrust the copper giant in light of revelations this week that former executives hid for two decades that the tailings impoundment might breach in a large temblor and bury their homes in mud. Kennecott insists the impoundment is safe now. Mine waste now goes into a new impoundment. The old impoundment is inactive and being drained, although it may take 10 years longer before it meets the state's minimum-safety standards, because the pile at its center remains too saturated. (The Salt Lake Tribune Mar. 28, 2008)

> Aerial view: complete Magna tailings dam (Google Maps)
> Aerial View: south east corner of Magna tailings dam (Google Maps)

 

Marcopper's Makulapnit Tailings Dam in imminent danger of collapse (Marinduque, Philippines)

A local non-government organization raised concerns over the possible collapse of the Makulapnit tailings dam. The dam had been abandoned by Marcopper Mining Corp. (MMC) following massive spills in 1996.
Provincial board member Allan Nepomuceno, committee on public order and safety chair, and the Marinduque Council for Environmental Concerns, raised concerns on the possible collapse of the dam. According to them, engineers from the Marcopper Mining Corp. have admitted that they had monitored leaks at the structures of the Makulapnit Dam, which is in imminent danger of collapse because of its rapid deterioration. Should it break, 34 million cubic meters of water and silt will cascade down the Boac River.
"With the continuous heavy rains that we are experiencing now, the aging dam may not be able to hold additional volume of water and burst. This is the same scenario in 1995 before the tragic mine tailings spillage occurred a year after in 1996," Nepomuceno said. In March 1996, the whole town of Boac was submerged in flood waters and tailings brought about by a collapsed tunnel of MMC’s Tapian Pit. (Philippine Daily Inquirer July 14, 2006)


United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

UNEP releases guidance for developing tailings regulations

Golder Associates Pty Ltd: Report to United Nations Environment Programme giving guidance for developing tailings regulations , August 2001, (90k PDF)

"Golder Associates was commissioned by the United Nations Environment Programme in January 2001 to provide a report on tailings regulation that could be used as guidance by regulatory jurisdictions in the development of the own tailings regulation regime.
A number of regulatory jurisdictions in different parts of the world were considered to be leaders in the field of tailings management and to have “successful” regulatory regimes. The approach adopted in this investigation was to contact these “leading edge” jurisdictions and determine the essential elements in their regulatory approach through the use of a questionnaire and direct contact and develop those essential elements into key points for inclusion in any tailings legislation system."

> See also Mineral Resources Forum


U.S. Government

U.S. NRC issues Draft Regulatory Guide on embankments for uranium mill tailings deposits for comment

> View here

U.S. Congress approves funds for coal slurry pond study

Congress has approved US$2 million to study ways to more safely store coal waste on the heels of an Oct. 11, 2000, Martin County (Kentucky) impoundment collapse that sent 1 million m3 of sludge into nearby streams.
The nine-month study will be conducted by the National Academy of Sciences . The academy will work with federal and state agencies and private companies to define problems associated with coal waste and to present recommendations to Congress. (Herald Leader Dec. 17, 2000)


European Commission

European Commission issues directive to prevent pollution and accidents from mining waste

> European Commission: Mining Waste
> Download Directive 2006/21/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 15 March 2006 on the management of waste from the extractive industries and amending Directive 2004/35/EC (227k PDF - in English (other languages available))

European Commission proposes new rules to prevent pollution and accidents from mining waste

"The European Commission has presented a proposal for a Directive to regulate the management of waste from the extractive industries (mining and quarrying). Because of its composition or volume, this waste can constitute a serious threat to the environment and human health if not properly managed. The proposal seeks to introduce EU-wide rules designed to prevent water and soil pollution from long-term storage of waste in tailings ponds, waste heaps, etc. The stability of these waste storage facilities must also be guaranteed to minimise possible consequences from accidents. Together with the revised Seveso II Directive on the control of major industrial accidents, and a Best Available Techniques document on tailings and waste rock, the proposed Directive will ensure sound management of extractive waste throughout the EU."
> View Commission press release June 2, 2003 .
> Download Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on the management of waste from the extractive industries, COM(2003) 319 final, June 2, 2003 (350k PDF - also available in German and French)
> View background information

EU unveils new law to deter industrial accidents, including tailings dam failures

On December 10, 2001, the European Commission unveiled tighter pan-European rules aimed at preventing industrial accidents involving dangerous substances. The new rules, which will apply throughout the 15-nation European Union, amend the so called Seveso II directive of 1996.
The law includes measures aimed at improving safety measures for tailings ponds. The initiative follows an accident at the Baia Mare gold mine in Romania in January, when cyanide-tainted mud and water escaped from a tailings pond, causing a considerable environmental damage. (Reuters Dec. 11, 2001)
> View EC news release Dec. 10, 2001
> Download Proposal for a Directive COM(2001) 624 final (PDF)

On June 11, 2002, a working group of the European Council approved the proposed amendments of the Seveso II directive. The Environmental Ministers of the EU member countries will discuss the issue during the meeting of the Council on June 25, 2002. European Parliament comments are expected for early July 2002. (BMU June 11, 2002)

On Sep. 9, 2003, the Council and the European Parliament meeting in the Conciliation Committee, reached an agreement on a proposal for a Directive on the control of major-accident hazards involving dangerous substances (also known as the "Seveso II" Directive). This agreement must be now endorsed by the Parliament (majority of votes cast) and the Council (qualified majority voting procedure) for the Directive to be adopted.
> Download Council release Sep. 10, 2003 (PDF)

Technical Working Group on BAT for Management of Tailings and Waste-Rock in Mining Activities set up

During a meeting in Sevilla on 20-22 June 2001, this Technical Working Group (TWG) was set up according to the Communication from the Commission on the 'Safe operation of mining activities: a follow-up to recent mining accidents' (COM(2000) 664 final).
(BAT = Best Available Techniques)
The Working Group has no Environmental NGO member.

Baia Mare Task Force releases report

> see details (Dec. 16, 2000)

Commission prepares initiatives on the safety of mines

Consultation of interested parties on an initiative of the European Commission on the management of waste resulting from prospecting, extraction, treatment, and storage of mineral resources

> View Commission Release 30 Oct. 2000

In addition, the Environment DG commissioned a study on the management of mine and quarry waste. The final report of the study carried out by the BRGM is available on the Consultation page since April 23, 2002.

Related European Commission Communications:

> See also:
WORKSHOP: MINE AND QUARRY WASTE – THE BURDEN FROM THE PAST
HOTEL SAN ROCCO, LAKE ORTA, NORTH ITALY, MAY 27-28, 2002

 

Baia Mare Task Force publishes Inventory of 23 High Risk Mining Industry Sites in the Tizsa river basin

> Download Statement from the Baia Mare Task Force , 4 Sep 2000 (37k PDF) (includes short list of sites)
> Download full report: Regional Inventory of Potential Accidential Risk Spots in the Tisa catchment area of Romania, Hungary, Ukraine & Slovakia , August 2000 (700k PDF)

 

Baia Mare Task Force established

The Baia Mare Task Force now established , 6 Mar 2000

Baia Mare Task Force


World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF)

Toxic waste storage sites in Europe. A preliminary risk inventory , April 1999 (257k PDF)

Suggested action at the European Union level to prevent unregulated, accidental pollution from metal mining activities , April 1999 (updated 3 May 2000) (97k PDF)

WWF and Mining

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