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Huge Mining Waste Dams Could Prove Deadly

Members of a rescue team search for victims of a collapsed tailings dam owned by Brazilian mining company Vale S.A. in a vehicle on Paraopeba River, in Brumadinho, Brazil, Feb. 5, 2019.
Huge Mining Waste Dams Could Prove Deadly
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A group of investors has released findings from its inquiry into how mining companies around the world store their waste.

Companies store billions of tons of waste in huge dams called “tailings dams.” The inquiry found that this storage method has led to stability issues for a tenth of the structures, the investors said. The inquiry was a joint project of the Church of England and investment fund managers.

The dams are some of the largest structures in the world. They can be many meters deep and several kilometers wide. The refuse from mines can be made of liquid, solid materials or small particles. It is usually poisonous.

Friends and relatives light candles during a march paying homage to the victims of a mining dam collapse a week ago, in Brumadinho, Brazil, Feb. 1, 2019.
Friends and relatives light candles during a march paying homage to the victims of a mining dam collapse a week ago, in Brumadinho, Brazil, Feb. 1, 2019.

The Vale dam collapse

The worldwide inquiry was launched after a tailings dam in Brazil collapsed in January 2019, killing hundreds of people in the town of Brumadinho. That dam belonged to Vale S.A., a Brazilian company that mines metals, minerals and chemicals.

In April 2019, the investors asked mining companies to provide details about their tailings dams.

The inquiry found that at least 166 dams worldwide have had stability issues in the past. But fewer than half of the companies contacted responded, leaving an incomplete picture of the safety and disaster risks.

Most Chinese and Indian companies contacted did not provide information.

“…We have seen the catastrophic consequences earlier this year in Brazil when [tailings dams] collapse,” said Adam Matthews. He is a member of the Church of England’s Pensions Board.

Matthews noted that many companies already operate at a high standard. But many other companies do not and “dams are continuing to fail, putting lives and the environment at risk,” he added.

No industry standards

A tailings dam is the most common waste disposal method for a mining company, whether it is mining iron ore, gold or copper. Yet there are no established standards, or rules, defining what a tailings dam is, how to build one and how to care for a dam when it is no longer in use.

The major investors warned they might sell their shares in the mining companies unless they got clear information on possible risks. What happened in Brazil has led to one of the largest shareholder pushes in reaction to a single disaster.

The Church of England and some other investors sold their Vale stock shares after the Brumadinho dam collapse. The company lost 25 percent of its market value right after the disaster.

Do the right thing

The Reuters news agency reports that, of the 726 mining businesses contacted during the inquiry, 43 percent responded. All the major companies, including Vale, were among those providing information, the investors said.

The information provided shows that tailings dams around the world hold more than 44 billion square meters of waste. They also show that 166 of the 1,635 dams have had stability issues, although it is unclear how bad those issues had been. And the companies reported that the problems had been resolved, the inquiry said.

The investors said they hope to finish a database of dam risks by late January 2020 and to create worldwide safety standards. Many dams will have to be forcibly closed, they told Reuters.

India and China

While North and South America are home to most of the world’s tailings dams, India and China also store huge amounts of waste in such dams. That includes the Weikuang dam in northern China, which is about 11 kilometers wide.

The Weikuang dam is owned by Baotou Iron & Steel Group. That company did not answer the investors’ request for information or a Reuters request for comment.

Coal India Ltd. and Metallurgical Corporation Of China Ltd. are two of the world’s largest coal mining operations. The two said they did not know about the inquiry and never received the request. Both companies are controlled by their governments.

The Church of England said it hopes to work with Chinese and Indian companies over time to put together a truly complete database.

I’m John Russell. And I’m Alice Bryant.

The Reuters news agency reported this story. Alice Bryant adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

stability – n. the quality or state of being not likely to give way or overturn; firmly fixed.

manager – n. someone who is in charge of a business, department or something else

respond – v. to say or write something as an answer to a question or request

catastrophic – adj. involving or causing sudden great damage or suffering

pension – n. an amount of money that a company or the government pays to a person who is old or sick and no longer works

board – n. a group of people who manage or direct a company or organization

standard – n. a level of quality that is considered acceptable or desirable

share – n. any of the equal parts which the ownership of a business is divided into

database – n. a collection of pieces of information that is organized and used on a computer