Two years ago, a mine waste dam in British Columbia, Canada, breached, releasing 24 million cubic meters of mine waste (or tailings) sludge into the Fraser River watershed, a group of lakes and rivers that bear salmon and sustain the livelihoods of First Nation communities.
The disaster at the Mount Polley mine should have served as a wake-up call for stronger regulations and scrutiny of an industry that too often remains out of the public spotlight. Unfortunately, far too little has been done to prevent such a disaster from reoccurring.
This was clear last November, when another mine waste dam breached in Brazil with catastrophic consequences, flooding the Rio Doce with red sludge — and killing at least 19 people. The Samarco mine is owned by two of the world’s largest mining companies, BHP Billiton and Vale.
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Shortly after the Mount Polley accident, a series of mine waste accidents in Mexico polluted rivers and devastated fisheries.
Alarmingly, these failures show no sign of slowing down. A study released after the Mount Polley spilllast year concluded that catastrophic mine waste failures are increasing in frequency and severity and will continue to do so until regulators and mining companies take active steps to prevent them. Examining 100 years of tailings dam failures, the report concludes that new technologies have allowed companies to mine deposits with increasingly miniscule amounts of metals, thus generating even more waste, and increasing the probability of devastating accidents.
An independent investigation by a panel of experts commissioned by the Canadian government after the Mount Polley spill found that the disaster was caused by a fault in the dam design and predicted that that an estimated two additional tailings dam failures could occur every 10 years in British Columbia if business continues as usual. The expert panel issued a suite of recommendations, including the creation of independent tailings review boards and the fundamental shift to dry tailings storage, a far safer way to store massive quantities of mine waste.
The province of British Columbia recently passed some regulatory measures in response to the Mount Polley panel, but critics are concerned that these changes do not go far enough. The Sierra Club just released a report arguing that the new code does not go the full distance to implement the Mount Polley expert panel’s recommendations. For example, it does not require companies to “eliminate water” from stored tailings, as the Panel recommends, but rather make an “effort” to remove water and “consider” alternatives.
The growing rate of mine dam failures is a global problem that requires a global solution.
Just this week, four organizations representing the four countries impacted by these most recent disasters called on the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to address this growing crisis. Earthworks, MiningWatch Canada, Greenpeace Brazil and Niparaja in Mexico urged UNEP to conduct a transparent review of tailings dams around the world and establish an oversight body to implement the best practices put forth by the Mount Polley panel.
In the United States, a number of groups have urged the US government to assess the state of mine waste dams in the US and integrate the Mount Polley panel recommendations into regulation.
We can’t afford another Mount Polley or Rio Doce disaster ever again — and we have expert recommendations about how to prevent such accidents. But unless these recommendations are comprehensively implemented, it is likely that these spills will continue to plague communities around the world.