Industrial accidents at tailings management facilities (TMFs) - which handle and store the fine-grained waste materials remaining after extracting minerals and metals from the earth, often containing toxic and hazardous substances - have resulted in devastating effects on humans and the environment within and across countries in recent years. With the severity of such accidents increasing, especially due to climate change, and the demand for mineral resources set to continue rising, the urgency of prioritizing safety has never been greater. Today, UNECE is therefore launching a new Online Toolkit and Training for Strengthening Mine Tailings Safety, which will help countries in the UNECE region and beyond to address key risks.
In 2019, the collapse of a tailings dam in Brumadinho, Brazil represented a huge human tragedy: 12 million cubic meters of mining water caused 5 miles of destruction, wiping out 250 people’s lives and the livelihoods of many more. TMF failures also happen in the UNECE region. In 2016, mine tailings, containing cyanide and other hazardous substances, spilled into the Ulba and Filippovka Rivers following the failure of a water collector that was part of a TMF in the town of Ridder, Kazakhstan. The waste caused accidental water pollution that prompted communities in distant towns along waterways in Kazakhstan and the Russian Federation, including in Omsk over 1,000 kilometers away, to take precaution. In 2000, the burst of a tailings pond in Baia Mare, Romania, became known as Europe’s worst environmental disaster since Chernobyl: about 100,000 cubic meters of cyanide-rich tailings spilled into tributaries of the Danube River, contaminating drinking water and diminishing fish stocks across numerous riparian countries, before reaching the Black Sea.
In addition to human deaths and damage to human health and the environment, cleaning up such accidents has severe cost implications, which by far outweigh the cost of investing in preventive measures. The risks of accidents occurring at TMFs are being exacerbated due an increase in extreme weather events, like floods, as well as other natural hazards such as earthquakes, which can lead to overflows or breaches, and slow onset climate events, such as melting permafrost, which can result in structural weakening. Moreover, the demand of mineral resources extracted from mining is expected to sharply increase in the coming decades – in particular in order to produce the green energy technology required for a green economy transition. This projected increase in demand for mineral resources goes hand-in-hand with an increase of hazardous waste being generated, which needs to be stored in more and more TMFs. All TMFs have to be safely managed to prevent more accidents from occurring.
Solutions exist to improve safety
Governments, competent authorities, TMF operators and other stakeholders can use UNECE’s Online Toolkit and Training for Strengthening Mine Tailings Safety, in order to:
Learn about mine tailings safety and why urgent action is needed;
Take a three-step practical training course on how to use key tools to increase mine tailings safety within their country or region, including through a recently launched video, the UNECE Safety Guidelines and Good Practices for TMFs and the related TMF methodology developed by the German Federal Environment Agency;
Better understand UNECE’s ongoing activities, projects and partnerships with other organizations; and
Become familiar with existing resources on the topic.
The online toolkit and training thus helps countries to improve management and safety around mining activities and the governance of disaster risks. It fills a gap in the current context when on-site trainings and in-person capacity development activities cannot take place due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, the work contributes to accomplishing the objectives of Agenda 2030, with its Sustainable Development Goals and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.
Franziska Hirsch, Secretary of the UNECE Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents, calls for action: “The projected increase in demand for mined resources, coupled with an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events due to climate change call for the urgent need to invest in TMF safety. Safety must become a priority – we cannot continue business as usual! I would like to strongly encourage governments, operators and stakeholders to make use of the online toolkit, to support national and industry efforts to improve the safety of TMF sites, and strengthen resilience to the impacts of climate change. The toolkit will allow for the practical implementation of decision 2020/1, through which Parties to the Industrial Accidents Convention have committed to step up efforts to strengthen tailings safety and prevent failures, and invited other countries to do the same.”
Note to editors
Since entering into force in 2000, the UNECE Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents has provided an important legal framework for countries to develop and strengthen mine tailings safety. The new online toolkit and training presents an overview of tailings-related work under the Convention, including the:
- UNECE video on mine tailings safety (English, Russian);
UNECE Safety Guidelines and Good Practices for TMFs (English, Russian); German Federal Environment Agency’s (UBA’s) TMF methodology to apply UNECE’s guidelines, which UBA and the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River have further developed;
Outcomes of assistance projects in Ukraine, Armenia and Georgia and the Danube River Basin;
Conference of the Parties’ decision 2020/1 on strengthening mine tailing safety in the UNECE region and beyond.
The website makes these tools, guidance materials and methodologies more accessible and applicable, and provides a means for the Convention’s Parties to better implement their recent decision.