Brazil Dam Catastrophe Sounds Alarm for U.S. Waste Ponds (Bloomberg Environment – February 4, 2019)

A mining dam failure similar to the one that killed more than 100 people in Brazil could happen in the U.S., according to a mine engineer who consults with the government.

At the root of the risk is a quilt of differing state regulations, sloppy dam construction, lax maintenance, neglect of decades-old dams that are wrongly assumed to be stable, and stronger storms dumping water into dams that weren’t designed to handle the weight, said James Kuipers, who consults with the Environmental Protection Agency and state governments on tailings dams, which hold mining waste.

“It can happen here,” Kuipers told Bloomberg Environment. But the industry says tailings dams in the U.S. are safer than they’ve ever been, thanks to advances in technology and design.

Rigorous oversight also ensures that dams don’t break, said Ashley Burke, a spokeswoman with the National Mining Association. “The U.S. mining industry is one of the most heavily regulated industries in the world,” Burke said.

And in the event of a dam break, the risk to human life is lower in the U.S. than in some other parts of the world, including Brazil, because “a lot of our mining, especially metals mining, takes place in areas with low population density,” said David Chambers, a mine engineer and president of the Center for Science in Public Participation, a nonprofit that focuses on mining pollution.

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