China tightens rules on tailings dam safety

BEIJING (Reuters) - China has tightened rules covering the safety management of tailings dams, including banning them in some areas, authorities said on Thursday, as the country aims to prevent risks after a fatal disaster in Brazil in January.

FILE PHOTO: Pipes coming from a rare earth smelting plant spew polluted water into a vast tailings dam near Xinguang Village, located on the outskirts of the city of Baotou in China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in this October 31, 2010 picture. REUTERS/David Gray/File Photo

Downstream areas with a high density of people - such as residential neighborhoods, industrial premises or markets - or with production and living facilities within one kilometer, will be off limits for new, rebuilt or expanded tailing dams, the Ministry of Emergency Management said in a statement on its website.

Tailings dams are the most common waste disposal methods for mining firms, whether they are extracting iron ore, copper or gold. They can tower dozens of meters high and stretch for several kilometers.

The ministry said it began work on revising the guidelines in February this year, soliciting opinions from local regulators, industry associations and companies to set stricter thresholds for new or expanded tailings dams.

Other new or expansion projects with a dam height of over 200 meters are prohibited, while tailings dams that have been in service for less than five years may not be expanded or rebuilt, according to the ministry.

The ministry also said dams that change from wet tailings to dry tailings were also not allowed to expand.

There have been increasing concerns on tailings dams safety after the collapse of a Vale SA dam killed an estimated 300 people in January.

An independent panel backed by the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM), the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) unveiled draft safety standards for tailings dams in November.

China, which has not officially disclosed information on its tailings dams in more than two years, said it had a storage capacity of more than 20 billion tonnes at the end of 2016, according to China Mining Association.

The Ministry of Emergency Management said the draft guidelines will be open for feedback from local regulators until the end of the year.

Separately from the rules on tailings dams management, the ministry issued a draft of national standards covering technical rules of tailings dams in September.

Reporting by Min Zhang and Tom Daly; editing by David Evans