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Countries to decide on strengthening safety of industrial and mine tailings facilities under UNECE Industrial Accidents Convention

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused wide-ranging effects on human health, security and economic activity, which have significantly impacted industrial safety.

The eleventh meeting of the Conference of the Parties to UNECE’s Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents (Industrial Accidents Convention) will gather over 100 representatives from 41 Parties across the Pan-European region from 7 to 9 December 2020 to review progress and take decisions towards the Convention’s strengthened implementation, guided by its long-term strategy. For the first time in its 20-year history, the meeting will be held in a hybrid, predominantly online format. It will be preceded by a seminar on mine tailings safety in the UNECE region and beyond, to be held on 1 December.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that effective prevention and preparedness of industrial accidents is more critical than ever before, taking account of additional risks related to, among others, the closing and re-opening of industrial operations. For example, one person was killed and two injured following an explosion a day after re-opening a plastics factory in Ottaviano, Italy, in May.  The pandemic has put industrial operations and maintenance, monitoring, inspections, and contingency planning, under additional pressure. Risks and disruptions caused by this – or other future – pandemic(s) need to be duly integrated into risk assessments and management. At the same time, the consequences of any accident during the pandemic are more difficult to mitigate, as countries already face a significant health and socio-economic burden. The dramatic warehouse explosion caused by ammonium nitrate in the Beirut port area this August shocked the entire world. According to media reports and the World Health Organization, the explosion left over 178 people dead, 6,500 injured, 100 missing, 300,000 homeless and severely damaged critical health infrastructure and medical supplies. Three of Beirut’s main hospitals were forced to close, resulting in the loss of approximately 500 hospital beds as COVID-19 cases were starkly increasing in Lebanon.

The Conference will discuss how the pandemic impacts industrial safety, and how industry manages risks during these disruptive times. Following a presentation of the results of a joint EU/OECD/UNECE survey on the implications of the pandemic, delegations will be invited to share further information on the guidance provided by authorities to industry, the handling of scheduled inspections, the integration of disruptions – like the pandemic – into risk assessments and any experienced incidents or near misses.

Further to the pandemic, the increasing intensity and frequency of extreme weather events due to climate change poses an increasing challenge to industrial operations, and the occurrence of natural-hazard triggered technological accidents (Natech). Such events can have severe consequences for mine tailings facilities. For example, in the Krasnoyarsk region of the Russian Federation, in 2019, heavy rains led to a dam collapsing at a gold mine and the subsequent flooding of miners’ cabins, which left at least 15 dead and 16 hospitalized. Beyond the UNECE region, a mine tailings failure in Brumadinho, Brazil, in January 2019 spilled approximately 12 million cubic meters of mining waste, killing at least 259 people and causing 5 miles of destruction in the local town and countryside.

Solutions exist to improve safety. In advance of the Conference, the online seminar on mine tailings safety will take stock of experiences with managing mine tailings safety. Countries and stakeholders within and beyond the UNECE region will exchange lessons learned and discuss actions to take to prevent future mine tailings accidents, addressing increased demand for mineral resources, climate change and other Natech risks, and socio-economic development. It will highlight the application of the UNECE safety guidelines and good practices for tailings management facilities and the Methodology for improving tailings management facilities safety, the latter developed by the German Environment Agency, in UNECE countries. Following the seminar, a decision on strengthening mine tailings safety in the UNECE region and beyond will be presented to the Conference for adoption.

The Conference will also review the ninth implementation report of the Convention (2016–2018), showing progress and implementation gaps, based on national implementation reports. It will decide, on this basis, on further action to strengthen implementation. Furthermore, the Conference will take stock of assistance activities carried out in 2019–2020 for countries in the Caucasus, Central Asia, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe and agree on their continuation.

The upcoming meeting will demonstrate that, in the wake of the challenges faced, the industrial safety community is dedicated to continuing to support and cooperate with each-other, to share experiences and lessons learned, to realize the vision enshrined in the Convention’s long-term strategy: to significantly increase industrial safety and reduce the risk of technological disasters by ensuring its full implementation, its wide recognition as a legal instrument for risk reduction under the Sendai Framework and its contribution to the SDGs; and to serve as an example of the prevention of and preparedness for industrial accidents through transboundary cooperation.

Follow the Conference webpage and UNECE’s social media for updates and outcomes of the meeting.

Note to editors
About the UNECE Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents

The UNECE Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents aims to protect people and the environment against industrial accidents. It was adopted in 1992 and entered into force in 2000. It is designed to help prevent accidents from occurring, reduce the frequency and severity of such accidents and to mitigate their effects if they should occur. There are currently 41 Parties to the Convention, which include the European Union (EU) and 25 of the EU member States (without Ireland and Malta), Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kazakhstan, Monaco, Montenegro, Norway, the Republic of Moldova, the Russian Federation, Serbia, Switzerland, North Macedonia and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Other UNECE member States that are not Parties have committed to the Convention’s implementation, by signing a high-level commitment declaration in 2005. They are benefiting from activities under the Convention’s Assistance and Cooperation Programme.

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