Industry

Mining on Journey to “Holistic” Approach to Tailings Management

Safety standard has already resulted in transformative improvements, says industry body, but global mining sector hasa way to go.

Major mining firms are falling short of full conformance with the Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management (GISTM), but the new framework is fostering a “holistic perspective” to minimise harm to people and planet.  

Members of the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) were asked to publish their progress towards conformance with GSTIM by 5 August, for tailings facilities classified as ‘extreme’ or ‘very high’ consequences. They must report on all other facilities by August 2025. 

The standard contains 77 requirements integrating social, environmental, local economic and technical considerations which aim to achieve the goal of zero harm from tailings facilities to people and the environment. 

Aiden Davy, COO of the ICMM, which developed the standard with members, admitted a significant number are not yet fully compliant. But this outcome was “no surprise”, with the ICMM’s main priority being to ensure disclosure on progress to implementation by all members by its 5 August deadline. 

“For members who haven’t achieved full compliance in this initial round of disclosures, our focus lies in ensuring they rectify their non-compliant areas,” he told ESG Investor.  

“Their commitment must translate into tangible results within the stipulated timeframes.” 

The standard was developed after the failure of a tailings facility at Brumadinho, Brazil in 2019, causing 272 deaths, through an independent process convened by ICMM, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI). 

According to Davy, the Brumadinho disaster highlighted the urgency of paying closer attention to tailings management, with the new standard not only “reinforcing this need but codifying it as a requirement”. 

ICMM has witnessed a shift in senior management and board involvement within the mining sector on the issue, he said, noting that accountable executives are now appointed at the highest level to oversee tailings storage facilities.  

“This heightened engagement at the senior management and board levels is a significant transformation,” he said, adding that the practical implementation of the standard “fosters an integrated approach” that encompasses multiple professionals dealing with tailings management, environmental concerns, social aspects, governance matters, and monitoring. 

“This holistic perspective ensures that [tailings] facilities are managed with a well-rounded inter-disciplinary viewpoint,” he added.  

Trust and transparency  

In a statement, the ICMM said that while its members have undertaken a “sustained effort” to bring their highest consequence facilities into conformance with the GISTM, the council anticipates that some companies will not achieve full adherence to the standard’s requirements. 

“We still have a way to go, and members are working diligently to bring their tailings facilities into full conformance,” said ICMM CEO and President Rohitesh Dhawan said in a statement.  

“We recognise that trust stems from transparency, which will be foremost in how members disclose the progress they have made, and how they intend to meet the full requirements of the standard.” 

Davy noted that there are approximately 8,500 potential tailings storage facilities worldwide, with ICMM members collectively bearing responsibility for around 900 of these – translating to approximately 10% to 15% of the total number. 

In this context, the first tranche of disclosures covers approximately 250 of these high-consequence facilities, said Davy.  

This information provides context for the reporting of progress and developments, helping the ICMM to understand overall numbers of facilities. 

“Flexibility and latitude were allowed in terms of the approach to the disclosure process,” said Davy, noting that there isn’t a definitive “right or wrong method” to disclosure so long as the essential information required for coverage is present. 

“One of the notable strengths of these disclosures is the absolute transparency they offer regarding the current status of compliance,” he said, adding that this not only provides a clear view of where each member stands but also aids in their journey towards achieving full compliance.   

Davy acknowledged the current round of disclosures has covered slightly less than one-third of the total number of tailings facilities, implying that a “considerable amount of work lies ahead”. 

Investor attention  

Implementation of the standard has already resulted in “transformative improvements” across the global mining sector in tailings engineering, management, governance and monitoring, the ICMM reported. It has also elevated tailings management to the highest levels of company oversight and accountability, while promoting greater transparency, collaboration, and meaningful engagement with stakeholders. 

“Companies not aligned with the standard’s implementation might face investor actions affecting appointments and investments within the company,” said Davy.  

In January, the UNEP and the PRI (represented Church of England Pensions Board) announced the establishment of the Global Tailings Management Institute to independently oversee conformance with the GISTM.  

This institute adds another layer of incentive, said Davy, as it would contribute to a “climate of encouragement beyond our membership”, driving companies to embrace the standards and best practices for responsible tailings management. 

A new Global Investor Commission on Mining 2030 was also launched in January, with the aim to address systemic risks in the mining sector to ensure a just transition to net zero, mitigating negative social impacts and meeting growing global demand for critical minerals.    

In May, the UK’s Local Authority Pension Fund Forum (LAPFF) has called for mining companies need to improve communication with investors and communities on how they are addressing human rights and environmental concerns after a series of visits to communities affected by mining disasters.

LAPFF released a report detailing visits by Chair Doug McMurdo to communities devastated by the Mariana and Brumadinho tailings dam collapses. The report flagged a host of human rights and environmental concerns that have yet to be addressed in the wake of the disasters, including health issues, cultural rights and severe concerns about water quality and availability.

There were also underlying concerns about companies’ failure to engage meaningfully and effectively with all communities affected by Vale, BHP and Anglo American’s mining operations in their areas.  

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