Catastrophic mine waste spills increasing in frequency, severity and cost world-wide
July 29th — On the 1st anniversary of North America’s worst mining waste spill at the Mount Polley Mine in British Columbia, a new interdisciplinary analysis reveals that such catastrophic spills are increasing in frequency, severity and cost.
The Risk, Public Liability, and Economics of Tailings Storage Facility Failures shows that modern metal mining techniques have driven the creation of increasingly more risky mine waste facilities, enabled by regulators that have failed to require best practices to minimize financial and environmental risk. These failures are almost all the result of the failure of regulatory agencies to require, and the industry’s failure to follow, known best practices.
Co-authored by Lindsay Newland Bowker, Director, Bowker Associates, Science & Research In The Public Interest, and David Chambers, Ph.D., a mining technical specialist, the report’s primary findings include:
- The rate of serious tailings dam failures is increasing. Half (33 of 67) of serious tailings dam failures in the last 70 years occurred in the 20 years between 1990 and 2009.
- The increasing rate of tailings dam failures is propelled by, not in spite of, modern mining practices. The increasing rate of tailings dam failures is directly related to the the increasing number of TSFs larger than 5 million cubic meter capacity necessitated to allow the economic extraction of lower grades of ore.
- 11 catastrophic failures are predicted globally from 2010 to 2019. . Predicted total cost of these 11 failures is $6 billion , virtually all unfunded and unfundable.
- The average cost of the these catastrophic dam failures is $543 million as determined by actual court records and other official documents on government efforts to recoup clean up and recovery costs from miners who walked away without paying for the damages they caused.
- Mining companies cannot afford, and cannot secure insurance to cover, the costs of catastrophic failures that are not “acts of God”: Losses, both economic and ecological, are in large part either permanent and non-recoverable, or recovery — to the extent physically possible — funded by public monies.
“More mining waste disasters like Mount Polley are inevitable,” said David Chambers, report co-author and director of the Center of Science in Public Participation. He continued, “If mining practices continue as usual, we are going to see more severe spills, more frequently, that will cost the public hundreds of millions to billions of dollars to clean up.”
“Our research shows that most of the 29 known catastrophic failures of tailings dams in recorded history are the result of poorly informed consciously made business and management decisions by miners who then refuse, or are financially unable , to accept the public loss and consequence of those decisions.” said report co-author Lindsay Newland Bowker. “ Of course, regulatory systems which allow this to happen also contribute by not recognizing deviation from accepted practice and the unfolding of financial risk as it evolves and escalates environmental risk to a level of public disaster.”
“As a result of the Mount Polley investigation, mining companies and regulators know they have to change mine waste disposal practices to minimize the risk of future disasters,” said Chambers. He continued, “Unfortunately, as evidenced by the recent approvals for mines in the Alaska/British Columbia transboundary area, they are failing to do so.”
Mining tailings are the waste left over after metal ore has been processed. They are disposed of by dumping behind huge earthen tailings dams. On August 4, 2015, the Mount Polley Mine failed, releasing an estimated 25 million cubic meters of waste into the Fraser River watershed.
David Chambers, President Center for Science In Public Participation , Bozeman Montana (406-585-9854)
Lindsay Newland Bowker, Director Bowker Associates Science & Research In The Public Interest Stonington, Maine (207-367-5145)