Are mining waste disasters inevitable?
On 5 November 2015 the dam of an iron ore tailings management facility in Bento Rodrigues, Brazil, suffered a catastrophic failure and flooded the area. The immediate consequences were dire: the accident killed at least 11 people, injured over a dozen more and left more than 500 people homeless. However, this is just the start: the environmental impact of the Bento Rodrigues dam disaster, with some 50 million tons of iron ore waste escaping into the River Doce, is expected to be immense. The waste, containing high levels of toxic heavy metals and other toxic chemicals, reached the Atlantic Ocean 17 days later. The hazardous waste has already killed fish and aquatic life hundreds of kilometres downstream of the mine and has contaminated the river water on which hundreds of thousands of people depend for their drinking water and their subsistence. Fishermen and farmers fear for their livelihoods. Protected natural areas are also affected or threatened. The effects of this catastrophe in the south-eastern region of Brazil and parts of the Southern Atlantic will affect the environment for at least a century, according to some local scientists.
The Bento Rodrigues disaster has reminded us once again that mining waste facilities represent a serious threat to human health and the environment. The disaster has shed light on the numerous such facilities worldwide with questionable safety records. In the past, we have also experienced devastating industrial accidents of this kind in the UNECE region — such as the dam break of a tailings pond at a mining facility in Baia Mare, Romania, in 2000 and, more recently, the aluminium sludge spill in Kolontar, Hungary, in 2010 and the 2012 accident at the Talvivaara Mining Company in Finland. Many of these accidents have also impacted neighbouring downstream countries.
In the pan-European region, UNECE member States have negotiated the Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents, which helps prevent such disasters from happening. Under the Industrial Accidents Convention and its sister Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes, in cooperation with the German Federal Environment Agency, international experts have developed Safety Guidelines and Good Practices for Tailings Management Facilities and a Checklist on the Safety of Tailings Management Facilities in order to prevent such mining waste disasters and to limit their negative consequences. The Joint Expert Group on Water and Industrial Accidents established under the two Conventions supports countries in their efforts to prevent, be prepared for and respond to accidental transboundary water pollution.
The tools developed and the activities undertaken in the UNECE framework will also help countries to achieve the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals, in particular when it comes to the reduction of the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and the improvement of water quality by reducing pollution from hazardous chemicals. I am proud to say that our work also supports countries in reducing technological disaster risk, investing in disaster preparedness and enhancing resilience in line with the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030.
Prevention of mining waste disasters will require coordinated and sustained efforts and further investment in the area of safety management by both national authorities and industry, as well as awareness-raising campaigns and public participation. Sharing experiences and good practices among countries is crucial, as is international cooperation in order to address and mitigate the potential transboundary effects of industrial accidents. UNECE stands ready to share our experiences gathered in the area of the prevention of and preparedness for industrial accidents, including those which could lead to water pollution.
I encourage countries from the UNECE region and beyond to make use of the Safety guidelines and good practices and the Checklist on the safety of tailings management facilities to reduce the risks from these facilities. Some of these facilities are “ticking time bombs”: if countries do not act to eliminate accident risks, the question is not whether there will be more accidents like at Bento Rodrigues, but when. Let us work across borders to improve the safety of facilities holding mining waste — to prevent such accidents, which are not inevitable.