January 25, 2022 marked three years since the Brumadinho tailings dam disaster, which happened at Vale’s Córrego do Feijão mine in Brazil in 2019.
By Dineo PhoshokoThe tailings disaster sent shockwaves through the industry and made international headlines for many weeks. The tailings dam collapse created massive damage to the environment as well as mine infrastructure and surrounding areas. In addition, more than 250 people lost their lives, making this one of the most catastrophic events in mining’s history. The Brumadinho dam disaster had social, environmental and human consequences and also led to changes in the scope of tailings storage facilities (TSF). In an interview with Mining News, Adriaan Meintjes, Partner and Principal Geotechnical Engineer at SRK Consulting, explains that the failure of the Brumadinho TSF led to a significant review of international standards, fundamentally changing the scope of TSF design and management globally. Not too long after this tailings disaster, the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) co-convened the Global Tailings Review with the aim of establishing an international standard for the safer management of TSFs. Meintjes explains that within 18 months, the Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management (GISTM) was published in August 2020. The convention of the Global Tailings Review, as well as the drafting of the GISTM, is an important step taken by the mining industry to ensure that history does not repeat itself when it comes to TSF failures.
Global Industry Standard on Tailings ManagementLed by Dr Bruno Oberle, the GISTM is aimed at the adoption of global best practice on TSF design, construction and management. The Global Tailings Review website states that the standard was developed by a multi-disciplinary expert panel, with input from a multi-stakeholder advisory group. Furthermore, the review involved extensive public consultation with affected communities, government representatives, investors, multilateral organisations and mining industry stakeholders – and is informed by existing best practice and findings from past tailings facility failures. According to Meintjes, the GISTM contains 77 requirements, grouped into six topic areas. “This document is a gamechanger in tailings dam management and engineering, and describes all the requirements for successful TSF management. Following Brumadinho, the International Commission on Large Dams (ICOLD) also commissioned a technical drafting team to update their TSF management documentation. A first draft was issued in May 2020, and this is still to be finalised,” he says. Meintjes also emphasises that while the GISTM requirements are clear, the practical process of meeting them requires that country-specific standards are detailed in all major mining areas. “Such standards must also align with the more detailed engineering requirements provided in the ICOLD documentation,” he says. “This process is currently underway.”
TSF from a South African perspectiveAlthough the Brumadinho disaster happened in Brazil, it’s impacts were felt closer to home in South Africa. Local mining companies took the initiative to ensure that operations on TSFs are compliant and up to standard. “With its proud heritage of mining, South Africa has enthusiastically embraced the requirements of the GISTM in a number of ways,” he says. “Implementing the GISTM requires suitable and relevant design standards, and these are being addressed in the updating of SANS 10286.” Meintjes also outlines the work that has been ongoing on at least three different levels, since the publication of the GISTM: Level one: All members of the International Council on Mining and Metals – who include the major mining companies operating in South Africa – are working towards meeting GISTM requirements by 5 August 2023. Level two: Other mining firms are following a similar route in terms of meeting their GISTM obligations. Financial institutions now also require compliance with the GISTM for project finance and insurance. Level three: This level relates to national standards. A South African National Standards (SANS) committee has been commissioned to update the country’s tailings dam design standard (SANS 10286). This will ensure that this standard complies with both the GISTM and the ICOLD requirements, taking into consideration local conditions.
In addition to the three levels above, Meintjes explains that South Africa has various laws and regulations related to tailings dam management. “Among the most important are the Water Act – particularly those clauses related to water pollution and dam safety – and mining regulations enforced by the Department of Mineral Resources and the department of the environment,” he says.There is also the Code of Practice for Mine Residue Deposits, a national standard outlining fundamental objectives, principles and minimum requirements for best practice. “These aim to reduce risk and prevent negative legacies for future generations,” he says. “It is being updated in line with the GISTM and ICOLD documentation. This standard is to be published as an update to SANS 10286.”