Proposed standards for mining waste dams draw concerns from industry trade group

VANCOUVER (Reuters) - The world’s largest mining trade group said on Monday it has concerns with global standards for mining waste dams being crafted by an independent panel of academics and engineers, especially how the new rules will apply equally to new and existing facilities.

FILE PHOTO: A soldier helps a member of a rescue team on Paraopeba River as they search for victims of a collapsed tailings dam owned by Brazilian mining company Vale SA, in Brumadinho, Brazil February 5, 2019. REUTERS/Adriano Machado/File Photo

The public lobbying of an ostensibly neutral process is likely to rankle environmentalists, indigenous groups and others who have long demanded miners do more to bolster safety at tailings dams, which are used to store the muddy detritus of the mining process and can be dozens of meters high.

Public trust in the industry has plunged since a Brazil tailings dam owned by Vale SA collapsed last January, killing hundreds.

An eight-person panel backed by the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM), the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) released draft standards for tailings dams last Friday.

“There are things in there which we may feel are tough to implement, practically,” Aidan Davy, ICMM’s chief operating officer, told the Tailings and Mine Waste 2019 Conference in Vancouver. “There’s still some way to go before ICMM can endorse the final standard.”

The standards are open for public comment until the end of the year and are set to be finalized by next March.

While all three entities backing the panel have said that its work must be independent, they each must approve the final findings, Davy said.

He stressed that the final standards must be adhered to be all 27 of its members - including Vale - as a precondition of membership. Davy added the standards should ideally be taken up by the entire mining sector, adding it would be an “abject failure” if only the trade group’s members adhere.

Many mining companies in China and India, the world’s two-largest countries by population, are not ICMM members.

The draft standard focuses on six main areas, including the social, economic and environmental context of a proposed or existing tailings facility.

“Some of the things need to be sharpened before the standards are finalized,” Davy said, adding there is “insufficient clarity” on how the standards would apply to both new and existing tailings dams.

Davy said he supported a clause in the standards that would protect industry whistleblowers.

“This is fundamentally about ... the courage to call out unacceptable practices and to take bad news to your client or to your senior management,” Davy told the conference’s roughly 900 attendees.

Reporting by Ernest Scheyder; Editing by Chris Reese and Tom Brown