From Canada to Brazil, Mexico to Papua New Guinea communities across the globe are living in the shadows of dangerous tailings dams. Because there is no complete global database of all active and abandoned tailing facilities, it is hard to know the exact number. Estimates range from 3,500-18,000, or possibly even higher, meaning thousands of communities are downstream from potentially unsafe structures.
Given the hazardous nature of tailings, mine operators and regulators, must commit to making safety the primary consideration at mines and specifically in tailings dam design, construction, operation, and closure. Without this commitment, cost will continue to drive decision making, putting people and the environment at risk. If a mine cannot guarantee the safety of the surrounding community it should not be built.
Governments and regulators need to force the industry to move away from using technologies that pose a significant threat of failure, that allow too much room for human error and that are already known to have detrimental impacts on communities and ecosystems. These regulations should include:
Additionally, communities must have the power to decide whether or not they accept the long lasting and potentially disastrous consequences associated with tailings storage. As a 2017 report spearheaded by the UNEP pointed out, “many of the essential decisions that govern tailings storage facilities’ performance may be made by remote decision makers who have little or no exposure to any long-term risks.” Governments and mining companies should allow for a transparent consent process that gives affected communities the ability to veto a project if they decide it is too dangerous. For Indigenous Peoples, international law recognizes that Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) must be in place in order for a mine to be developed, operated and closed. If a community deems a mine can not safely and responsibly dispose of waste, the mine should not move forward.
In 2020, an international group of 142 scientists, community groups and NGOs from 24 countries published a set of 16 guidelines for the safer storage of mine waste. The guidelines aim to protect communities, workers and the environment from the risks posed by thousands of mine waste storage facilities, which are failing more frequently and with more severe outcomes.