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First public database detailing global mine tailings dams launched

30 January 2020

A global database, the first to be made publicly accessible, has been launched which details information about mine tailings storage facilities with the aim of helping to prevent fatal disasters from occurring.

The Bento Rodrigues dam disaster - Image: Wikimedia/Mariana, Minas Gerais
The Bento Rodrigues dam disaster - Image: Wikimedia/Mariana, Minas Gerais

The Global Tailings Portal developed by GRID-Arendal, a Norwegian foundation that works closely with the United Nations Environment Programme, uses previously unreleased data to offer a view into the global mining industry's waste storage practices. The portal was created as part of the Investor Mining and Tailings Safety Initiative, which is led by the Church of England Pensions Board and the Swedish National Pension Funds' Council on Ethics, with support from the UN Environment Programme. The initiative is backed by funds with more than US$13 trillion under management. 

Until the launch of the database, there had been no central portal that detailed the location and quantity of the mining industry's liquid and solid waste, known as tailings. The waste is typically stored in embankments called tailings dams, which have periodically failed with devastating consequences for communities, wildlife and ecosystems.

The Bento Rodrigues dam disaster in Brazil (pictured) killed 19 people in November 2015 after an iron ore containment dam failed and released 60 million cubic metres of iron waste. 

"This portal could save lives", says Elaine Baker, senior expert at GRID-Arendal and a geosciences professor with the University of Sydney in Australia. "Dams are getting bigger and bigger. Mining companies have found most of the highest-grade ores and are now mining lower-grade ones, which create more waste. With this information, the entire industry can work towards reducing dam failures in the future."

The database allows users to view detailed information on more than 1,700 tailings dams around the world, categorised by location, company, dam type, height, volume, and risk, among other factors.

"Most of this information has never before been publicly available", says Kristina Thygesen, GRID-Arendal's programme leader for geological resources and a member of the team that worked on the portal. When GRID-Arendal began in-depth research on mine tailings dams in 2016, very little data was accessible. In a 2017 report on tailings dams, co-published by GRID and the UN Environment Programme, one of the key recommendations was to establish an accessible public-interest database of tailings storage facilities.

"This database brings a new level of transparency to the mining industry, which will benefit regulators, institutional investors, scientific researchers, local communities, the media, and the industry itself", says Thygesen.

The release of the Global Tailings Portal on January 25 coincided with the one-year anniversary of the tailings dam collapse in Brumadinho, Brazil, that killed 270 people. After that disaster, a group of institutional investors led by the Church of England Pensions Board asked 726 of the world's largest mining companies to disclose details about their tailings dams. Many of the companies complied, and the information they released has been incorporated into the database.

You can view the Global Tailings Portal at http://tailing.grida.no/


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