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Responsible Sourcing of Minerals – Tailings Dams in Context

03.01.2019

Frances Wall, Professor of Applied Mineralogy, Camborne School of Mines, University of Exeter

Responsible mining is about maximising the positive aspects of extraction of raw materials and minimizing the negative aspects. Responsible sourcing is about the assurance that this is being done.

Many people buy fairtrade coffee, tea or bananas, but how many of us think about responsible sourcing of the raw materials in our manufactured goods? We may look for a forestry stewardship council tag on wooden furniture but are less likely to enquire about complex products such as cars or computers, which may have thousands of components, most with long supply chains.

Responsible sourcing is best established for gemstones and gold in jewellery, these are the mineral commodities most similar to tea, coffee and bananas. They are still easily recognisable to consumers and have short value chains. Schemes include the Responsible Jewellery Council, Oro verde from Colombia, and the Fairmined scheme. Companies certainly use responsible sourcing as part of their brand image.

Responsible sourcing of other goods though is just as important but more difficult to connect. It is gathering pace, especially in response to consumer activism targeting high profile companies after single high profile issues have been in the news. Examples are conflict minerals (‘blood diamonds and ‘coltan’) and child labour (cobalt). Catastrophic events, such as the Fundão dam failure at the Samarco Mineração S.A mine on 5 November 2015, can also have a similar effect.

I have selected three schemes here and noted how they might apply. The first is the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) based in London, and led by the CEOs of its 27 members who are most of the World’s largest mining companies, including BHP and Vale. The ICMM aims to lead best practice, publishing many guidelines and toolkits for distribution throughout the mining industry. In December 2016, ICMM produced a review of tailings management guidelines and recommendations for improvement, listing Samarco, and also other recent high profile failures. But ICMM is industry led, BHP and Vale were already full members of ICMM, and yet still the disaster happened.

A scheme with more stakeholder involvement is the new Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA). Just launched, its steering group involves mining companies, companies that use the raw materials, unions, communities and non-governmental organisations. It aims to give mine site accreditation, rather than company-wide audit and this should make it easier for people living near mines to see if local operations are working to high standards. I am sure the audit criteria has been shaped by incidents such as Samarco. Chapter 4.1 concerns waste management including a list of measure relating to tailings dams such as detailed engineering reports, independent technical review, short and long-term plans and schedules for tailings and waste rock or other facilities that are subject to stability concerns.

Another interesting example comes from Finland where a mine at the Talvivaara caused pollution in 2012 and had to close down. In response, in order to regain public confidence, Finland has now set up its own Finnish Network for Sustainable Mining. Based on the Canadian Towards Sustainable Mining scheme, eight protocols enable the evaluation of mining companies. One of these is about Tailings management. Four more, Safety and health, Stakeholder involvement and community outreach, Crisis management and Closure of operations are all also directly relevant. All companies in Finland are members at level C, which is equivalent to legal compliance. Performance above this leads to ratings up to AAA for the leading operations. Is there an opportunity here for Brazil?

Acknowledgement: part funding was received from NERC grant NE/M011429/1, (www.sosrare.org).

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