Nearly a year after the deadly Brumadinho collapse, a majority of mining firms have failed to disclose information about their waste dams
Alistair MacDonald and Kim Mackrael
Dec. 18, 2019 5:30 am ET
Published by The Wall Street Journal
Less than half of the world’s larger miners have released safety and environmental details about their mine-waste dams, showing the mixed success of investors’ demands for greater transparency after the deadly Brumadinho dam collapse in Brazil.
In January, 270 people died following the collapse of a tailings dam owned by Brazil’s Vale SA. The incident prompted a coalition of investors who manage more than $13 trillion to ask 726 companies in the mining and oil-sands business to disclose information on their dams.
Nearly 55% of companies hadn’t delivered as of last month, the Church of England said. While some of the largest miners—including Vale, BHP Ltd. and Anglo American PLC—have disclosed their information, others have yet to do so.
Investors are increasingly examining ethical issues when looking at mining.
Vale's tailings dam in Brumadinho earlier this month. PHOTO: WASHINGTON ALVES/REUTERS“Not disclosing is unacceptable and poses a very real risk to our investment,” said John Howchin, who analyzes ethical issues for Sweden’s state pension funds, which led the group demanding more transparency alongside the Church of England Pensions Board.
Tailings risk has become another turn-off for an investment community that has largely shunned the mining sector since the collapse of the commodity bubble in 2011.
Tailings, the waste material from extracting valuable minerals, are often held for decades behind dams that can be risky if they are poorly constructed, ill-maintained or filled with too much waste. Major failures of tailings dams have become more frequent as mining companies ramp up production to meet the world’s growing demand for commodities.
The large number of funds involved in the survey—coupled with the lack of comprehensive, state-compiled databases on tailings—has drawn attention to the coalition’s effort and investors’ increasing engagement on environmental issues.
Norilsk Nickel, one of world’s most valuable miners with a market capitalization of roughly $43 billion, hasn’t publicly released details on its tailings dams. In 2016, heavy rainfall caused a Norilsk Nickel tailings dam in northern Russia to overflow, coloring a local river red.
Polluted water overflowed a Norilsk Nickel tailings dam in northern Russia in 2016.
A spokeswoman for the Moscow-based company said it hadn’t received a request from the coalition but would be happy to cooperate. The Church of England said it emailed requests to the chief executives and investor relations departments at the 726 companies. If the email to investor relations bounced back, it would go to the CEO and staff in sustainability or engineering departments.
Miners of potash and phosphate—minerals used mainly in fertilizers—have been slow to disclose. Canada-based Nutrien Ltd. , a major producer valued at around $27 billion, sent basic information on its mine-waste facilities but didn’t answer key questions such as whether the dams have had stability issues.
Nutrien said late last month that it had added resources that would allow it complete the survey. A company spokesman initially said some questions were left unanswered because the main byproduct of potash mining is salt, viewed as less dangerous in a spill, and because Nutrien’s mines in Saskatchewan aren’t close to major water bodies or populated areas.
Satellite images show two of the company’s six Saskatchewan mines are located a few miles from residential communities and one neighbors a bird-breeding area. A tailings pond at the company’s North Carolina phosphate mine is located next to the Pamlico River, which feeds into the state’s largest estuary.
At least two tailings facilities owned by Nutrien have leaked or failed in the past, public records show. That includes a potash mine near Vanscoy, Saskatchewan, that reported a failure at its tailings pile in a 2014 technical report. Also that year, the company, then called Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan, revealed to a local broadcaster that it had discovered tears in a liner meant to contain salt water tailings at a site in New Brunswick, Canada.
The Nutrien spokesman said the company has never had a dam failure result in a release of salt water beyond its tailings management areas. He said any seepage of brine from the New Brunswick tailings pond would have been small and captured by the site’s remedial systems
The Brumadinho tailings dam disaster in Brazil has killed at least 179 people, with hundreds more missing and feared dead. This video shows the moment the disaster began. Israel Chemicals Ltd. is among other potash and phosphate miners that haven’t responded to the investor group’s survey. A spokesman said the original request for tailings data hadn’t reached the relevant people at the organization.
“Now that you have brought this issue to our knowledge, the company has forwarded it to the relevant person who will take care of it immediately,” the spokesman said.
In 2017, Israel Chemicals reported that the partial collapse of a subsidiary’s dike in Israel released 100,000 cubic meters of acidic wastewater that flowed into a nearby nature reserve. The wastewater resulted from the production of phosphate fertilizer.
The spokesman said the company worked to clean up the wastewater spill and is developing stronger and more-stable storage facilities for its phosphate fertilizer tailings.
A number of smaller Western-based miners also haven’t disclosed information on their tailings dams.
Vancouver-based Imperial Metals Corp. is not on record—even though it is tied to what is considered one of Canada’s worst environmental catastrophes. In 2014, a British Columbia dam owned by the company burst, sending some 25 million cubic meters of mining waste pouring into a pair of glacial lakes
A representative for Imperial Metals said the company’s CEO had received the request but declined further comment.
Large Chinese miners such as Jiangxi Copper Co. , Zijin Mining Group Co. and Zhongjin Gold Corp. also haven’t shared information with the investor coalition. None of the three replied to emails seeking comment.
In China, there are 8,869 documented tailings dams, of which 16% are within about half a mile of a residential area, school or hospital, according to research led by the School of University of Science and Technology in Beijing.
Karen Hudson-Edwards, a mining specialist at Britain’s University of Exeter, said the actual number in China is estimated at around 12,000 dams and there is little transparency on tailings risk in the country.
There have been at least 12 serious tailings-dam accidents in China since the 1960s, with one in 2008 killing 277 people, according to the World Information Service on Energy, a Netherlands-based nonprofit.
Write to Alistair MacDonald at email@example.com and Kim Mackrael at firstname.lastname@example.org
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