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Tailings dam collapses in the Americas: Lessons learned?

EnvironmentLatin America and the Caribbean

Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Jan 31, 2019. Protest against mining company Vale. Photo: Lincon Zarbietti

The catastrophic collapse of yet another Vale tailings (mine waste) dam in Brumadinho, Brazil brings us to thee major tailings dam collapses in the Americas in less than five years. The spill at Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley mine in British Columbia occurred in August 2014. It was the worst tailings dam disaster in Canadian history, spilling 25 million cubic meters of toxic tailings, polluting surrounding water systems, destroying salmon-spawning areas and jeopardizing livelihoods of Indigenous communities and small businesses. The much larger spill at Brazil’s Mariana mine, jointly owned by Vale and BHP Billiton, happened in November 2015. This resulted in 19 fatalities with destruction of communities – fields, homes, crops and livestock – plus major environmental damage throughout the entire Rio Doce river basin. On January 25, one of the tailings dams collapsed at Vale’s mine in Brumadinho, burying company offices, cafeteria and rail lines. Rescue efforts have continued unabated; by April 7, the Minas Gerais Civil Defence department reported 224 dead and 69 still missing. Property and environmental damages to nearby river systems are still being assessed. What are the lessons to be learned from these mining catastrophes? Can the citizen indignation and anguish generated by the tragedies at Mount Polley, Mariana and Brumadinho actually translate into measures to curb the unregulated power of the mining industry and reduce corporate impunity? I raised these questions in my comparative study of the tailings dam spills at Mount Polley and Mariana, subtitled Chronicles of Disasters Foretold. Far from learning lessons from these tragedies, mining companies and governments are continuing business as usual, making Brumadinho yet another “disaster foretold.” The graffiti on many Vale properties in Brazil today says it all: “Brumadinho was not a tragedy. It was a crime. Vale assassinates.”

Mount Polley’s aftermath

In Canada, the British Columbia (BC) government established an Independent Expert Engineering Investigation two weeks after the tailings dam collapse at the copper/ gold mine. Norbert Morgenstern, recognized at home in Canada and internationally as an expert in geotechnical engineering, chaired the three-person review panel. The panel report ruled out any option for the BC government and mining industry to carry on business as usual with these much-quoted words: “if the inventory of active tailings dams in the province remains unchanged, and performance in the future reflects that in the past, then on average there will be two failures every 10 years and six every 30.”

The highly technical report focused on mine waste storage. Mining technology today allows access to lower grade ores in remote ore bodies. Mining these ores becomes financially viable only with boom market conditions. The extractive process, however, creates exponential increases in mine waste, including rock, water, and tailings, which become toxic from chemicals introduced to extract the minerals. Tailings storage facilities need constant monitoring during the mine’s active life, at closure, and indeed into perpetuity. Wet storage methods in upstream dams create the most dangerous conditions. Both Mariana and Brumadinho were upstream dams.

Dangers made clear

A historical risk profile of tailings dams throughout BC was included in the experts’ report, with specific recommendations for adoption of best available technology (BAT) and best applicable practices (BAP). Yet a study of four new transboundary copper- gold projects in the BC-Alaska border area, commissioned by civil society organizations in March 2016, found that not one project was following the expert panel recommendations, although three of them could readily have been altered to meet them.

The mining industry is fully aware of the dangers of tailings storage, whether in Canada or Brazil. As the Mount Polley report stated: “Tailings dams are complex systems … also unforgiving systems in terms of the numbers of things that have to go right. Their reliability is contingent on consistently flawless execution in planning, in subsurface investigation, in analysis and design, in construction quality, in operational diligence, in monitoring, in regulatory actions, and in risk management at every level.” Yet a close look at events leading up to all three collapses shows a multiplicity of things that did not “go right” – choice of cheap over safe tailings storage methods, warnings unheeded, whistle-blowers fired, monitoring reduced, inspection recommendations not followed, lack of emergency and evacuation plans, and electoral campaigns financed by mining companies.

Workers, communities and all of us, as citizens, are left with very big questions. Who can ensure the rigour necessary to create and manage safe mine tailings storage and prevent more Mount Polleys, Marianas and Brumadinhos? Mining companies themselves, now largely self-regulated and driven by profit margins ahead of public safety? Government bodies, in a conflict of interests between promoting and regulating mining companies? Indigenous people, torn between defending traditional land and the lure of revenue, jobs and modernization? Unions – even though few mine workers are unionized, most being employed by subcontractors on short-term contracts? Environmental groups, now all too regularly criminalized rather than listened to? Affected communities, often working collectively, only, after tragedy has struck?

Photo by Miguel Schincariol AFP/Getty Images

Regulatory capture at the core

BC Auditor General Carol Bellringer was busy auditing mining enforcement and compliance when the Mount Polley disaster occurred. She was aware of the boom-bust tendencies in global commodity markets and the urgency of protecting British Columbia’s environment, whichever market cycle prevailed. She argued for strong regulatory oversight from the Ministry of Energy and Mines (now Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources) and the Ministry of the Environment (now Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change Strategy). Yet Bellringer’s harsh report documented a decade of neglect by these Ministires in which “almost every one of our expectations for a robust compliance and enforcement program … were not met.”

The auditor general tackled the core question – BC government regulatory capture by the mining industry. Her overarching recommendation was the creation of an integrated and independent compliance and enforcement unit: “Given that the Ministry of Energy and Mines is at risk of regulatory capture, primarily because MEM’s mandate includes a responsibility to both promote and regulate mining, our expectation is that this new unit would not reside within this ministry.” The audit also made 16 specific recommendations, some of which addressed regulatory breaches at Mount Polley.

BC government’s lack of response

The NDP and Green parties had been fiercely critical of the Liberal Party and its cozy relationship with its corporate backers from the mining industry. When a narrow electoral victory put NDP in power with the support of the Greens in May 2017, however, they introduced only minor changes. New laws preventing contributions to political parties by corporations and trade unions were passed. Some efforts were made to end the practice of the mining industry hiring and paying professionals to play regulatory roles. The central issue – the conflict of interest within the Ministry of Energy and Mines, tasked with both promoting mining and regulating it – has not had even a mention from the new government. Nor did the NDP take up the private prosecution filed by Bev Sellars, Chief of Xat’sull First Nation at the time of the spill, along with MiningWatch and several advocacy groups. MiningWatch filed 15 charges against Imperial Metals under the BC Mines Act and the BC Environmental Management Act.

Just after Brumadinho, a “who’s who” in mining gathered in Vancouver for BC’s annual Association for Mineral Exploration (AME) Roundup. The AME Roundup website displayed the usual corporate narrative, lauding continued expansion of mining as guarantor of good jobs, economic growth and global competitiveness. There was silence on catastrophic tailings dam spills and mining’s substantial contribution to global warming. John Horgan’s upbeat welcoming message endorsed the vision of more mining investments in order to position BC to play a major role in “meeting growing global demand for natural resources.”

Horgan portrayed the mining expansion as readily compatible with the commitment to “low carbon impact,” all with the full collaboration of “Indigenous partners.” Despite his vociferous critiques of mining practices as leader of the opposition, Horgan’s own watch as BC’s premier shows little evidence of his having learned the lessons from Mount Polley, Mariana and Brumadinho.

Keeping eye on Vale

What do we as citizens do when we recognize that the institutions in our democracy – elected governments, the judiciary, the media, universities, think tanks – are all being subjected to pressure and, in some cases, have effectively been bought by transnational corporations? When our elected representatives govern as if the corporations’ interests are equivalent to the public interest, what are our options? Where do we turn to when we recognize that we cannot depend on our governments to protect the lives of workers, the well-being of communities, or indeed, the sustainability of human life on planet earth?

Keeping our eyes on the mining corporations themselves, and how they gain, use and legitimate their power is one way. In 2010, a group of Brazilian organizations working on mining issues put out a call for a global meeting of people affected by the mining giant Vale. The meeting convenors included activists from Justice on the Rails – a coalition in northern Brazil advocating for communities along the railway line linking Vale’s giant iron mine at Carajás with the port for Vale’s especially built iron tankers in Maranhão. There were activists from Rio, site of Vale head office and a major and highly polluting partnership with Krupp steel. There were activists from Minas Gerais, where Vale’s multiple mines threatened pristine mountain areas like Gandarela and city water supplies of the many towns living cheek by jowl with the mines. Groups from Canada at that first meeting in Rio included United Steelworkers (USW) and MiningWatch Canada. USW represented mine workers from Sudbury, Port Colborne and Voisey’s Bay, whose first round of collective bargaining after Vale’s purchase of Inco had resulted in a strike that eventually stretched on for 11-18 months.

A group of 160 people from 14 different countries participated in the founding meeting. The International Articulation of People Affected by Vale (AV) that formed was very diverse, including labour, environment, human rights and faith groups as well as Indigenous groups and people from communities directly affected. After retirement, I have continued to participate in AV as a Centre for Research on Latin America and the Caribbean (CERLAC) associate. The work of AV includes exchanges of information, annual face to face meetings, exchange visits, sharing of Vale AGM strategies for inside and out on the streets and counter-reports to Vale’s annual sustainability report.

Graphic by Margie Adam/ ArtWork. Map source: ESA / Copernicus Sentinel-2A-L1C Satellite and OpenStreetMap. org contributors; Jan. 27, 2019. Wikimedia Commons

Situation in Brazil

The Brazilians urged caution to AV members in their dealings with Vale because “Vale buys people.” They recounted situations in Brazil where Vale had bought community, labour and government leaders. Revelations of a whistle-blower from Vale’s security department in 2013 included documents showing how Vale spied on journalists, lawyers and priests connected with AV, and infiltrated AV’s inaugural meeting. The recent collapses of the tailings dams highlight another kind of lying by Vale. In Mariana, Vale had elaborated a plan for emergency procedures and evacuation drills, only to file it in a drawer unused when the commodity price took a downturn. In Brumadinho, there have been allegations that Vale dismissed a consultancy company that found weaknesses in the dam, replacing it with another one more amenable to giving the results that the company wanted to have on record in its licensing application.

Nineteen days after the Brumadinho catastrophe, Vale CEO Fabio Schvartsman, was invited to answer questions from elected deputies at a public hearing in the Federal Chamber. In six hours of questioning, Schvartsman maintained that Vale remained ignorant of the cause of the “accident” and that regular mine inspections had been carried out with no problems identified. At one point, Schvartsman, who had remained seated during the moment of silence to honour the victims, made this startling claim. “Vale is a Brazilian jewel that cannot be condemned for an accident that happened in its dam, however great the tragedy was.” By early March, however, Schvartsman and other senior Vale executives had “stepped down” temporarily. By this time, prosecutors had recommended their dismissal. Official documents had been leaked, proving that Vale had prior knowledge that the Brumadinho dam was at risk of collapse.

AV’s Brumadinho report

In the days after the collapse, the Articulation of People Affected by Vale sent a three-person mission to Brumadinho. Their recommendations are as pertinent to Canada after Mount Polley as they are to Brazil after Mariana and Brumadinho. The AV report notes “the confusion of roles between the company and the state in responding to the disaster,” a confusion not caused by the disaster but resulting from years of dismantling multiple state regulatory organizations and agencies. The state’s submission to the mining company model of privatization and neoextractivism is also noted. The representatives also stress Vale’s active role in disqualifying, silencing and criminalizing the organizations in Brazil that defend human rights and the environment.

The report argues that the current mining model depends on “flexibilization” (justified by claims of state bureaucratization and delays), “self-regulation” (which allows mining companies to contract ostensibly independent professionals to attest to the security of their operations), and systematic dismantling of the state apparatus responsible for compliance and enforcement. Add to this the revolving doors in both countries between senior leaders in mining companies and state bodies and the regulatory capture by the mining companies is complete. All that is missing is the new element added by the SNC-Lavalin saga in Canada, the deferred prosecution agreements (DPAs) for corporate crimes, making it possible for “jewels” like Vale and SNC-Lavalin to avoid legal prosecutions by negotiating admissions of guilt, fines and promises of future good behaviour.

A vital role for activists & researchers

Some of the AV activists are also linked to the Politics, Economy, Mining, Environment and Society research group (PoEMAS), a multidisciplinary working group of professors and graduate students in six Brazilian universities that has done high quality research of all aspects of mining in Brazil. With the credibility of both industry and government sources in question, PoEMAS’ publications play an important role. Folha, the main newspaper in Brazil’s largest city, Sao Paulo, has twice run articles on Brumadinho written by PoEMAS coordinators Bruno Milanez (construction engineer/environmentalist) and Rodrigo Santos (sociologist).

Have there been any lessons learned by mining companies and governments from Mount Polley, Mariana and Brumadinho? Virtually none. Have there been any lessons learned by the civil society? It yet remains to be seen whether the furor created by these catastrophes can be harnessed by social movements. Can other social actors like universities, advocacy groups, and independent think tanks actually carry out the independent research and the monitoring of mining that the governments and companies have abdicated? Can these forces, in collaboration with other actors such as the judiciary and the media, act in ways that compel elected governments to re-establish robust regulatory regimes. This would mean regulatory regimes asking much harder questions about whether to permit mining, how much and where. It would mean regulatory bodiesgenuinely protecting the safety and health of mine workers as well as the lives and livelihoods of citizens in communities immediately affected by mining. It would mean states at all levels grappling with mining’s contribution to global warming.

Judith Marshall recently retired after two decades in the Global Affairs department of the United Steelworkers. Her work included member education on global issues and the organization of many international exchanges of workers, especially in the mining sector.

This article appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Canadian Dimension (CD Goes Digital).


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