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China restricts new mine tailings dams to improve safety, reduce environmental risk

24 March 2020

China’s Ministry of Emergency Management has said that the country will limit the number of new tailings dams built from mining projects in order to reduce environmental and safety risks. The use of existing tailings dams would also be limited, the ministry said in a notice posted online on March 20.

Representative image: Shutterstock
Representative image: Shutterstock

New mining projects are being encouraged to use existing tailings dams and to adhere to both environmental and safety regulations while doing so. The Ministry of Emergency Management is looking to local governments to help regulate mines and place a limit on the number of tailings dams within their region.

Mine tailings dams are made from 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.

While work starts on gradually reducing the current number of mine tailings dams in China, the ministry added that new dams would be allowed should a mine be considered a strategic or critical necessity for filling a supply shortage.

In January 2020, the first global database to be made publicly accessible was launched which details information about mine tailings storage facilities. The Global Tailings Portal developed by GRID-Arendal, a Norwegian foundation that works closely with the United Nations Environment Programme, aims to help prevent fatal disasters from occurring due to unstable tailings dams collapsing. In January 2019, a tailings dam collapse in Brumadinho, Brazil killed 270 people.

In its statement, the Chinese Ministry of Emergency Management said that abandoned tailings dams or dams that have not been in service for more than three years must be closed down within a year. Similar to the Global Tailings Portal, local Chinese governments have been instructed to log details about tailings dams on their websites at the start of every year. Suitable emergency responses should also be established in order to deal with a dam collapse should one happen.

China has around 8,000 tailings dams. New dams will now be prohibited from being over 200 metres high (656 feet), within 1km (0.6 miles) of residential areas or critical infrastructure, and within 3km (1.86 miles) of the Yangtze or Yellow rivers.

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