In recent times the eyes of the mining industry have become increasingly fixed on tailings dam safety. High profile failures like SAMARCO and Brumadinho sent reverberations beyond the confines of the industry, grabbing the attention of the world. We have now entered a time in which it’s really no longer acceptable not to have a sophisticated, robust tailings monitoring strategy in place.
Recently investors led by the Church of England and the Sovereign Wealth Fund of Norway, in charge of over a trillion dollars in assets, have started asking very awkward questions of mining companies in relation to everything tailings, and they aren’t the only ones.
These contributing factors are creating a mad rush of companies looking to get their strategies in order. Increasingly you can see never before published details popping up on company websites about TSFs (Tailings Storage Facilities), how many they have and the nature of the their construction, and most importantly, how they are being managed.
A greater focus on transparency, on doing the right thing, is positive news. However, for every top tier miner sharing this information and trying to manage their dams more responsibly there are thousands of mining companies who are not doing anything, and the industry is not asking them to do anything.
There needs to be a concerted effort to move from a situation where sharing information on tailings isn’t often requested or forthcoming to a point where tailings situational information is accomplished and managed in a safe, ethical and transparent manner.
The crux of the problem is there are disparate standards and practices in different geographies and everyone manages their dams differently. I am not simply talking about companies or regionally, but also site by site. It would surprise people, but most major mining companies do not even have their own global tailings monitoring standards e.g. the same instruments, methods and systems on every site. Why is this? The answer is, sadly, there simply hasn’t been any requirement or need to do so.
Now for the stark reality of the situation. In many cases the best case approach to tailings dam monitoring is to check visually, manually once a day and take instrument readings every three months or so – that’s it. For this to be the process for monitoring the integrity of critical structures, it is obvious that the vast majority are lagging well behind the curve. There is little or nothing to specify key metrics, frequency of data collection, worker qualifications, storage standards, reporting standards, collection practices and minimum analysis. And, this is best case, in some places…
What the industry needs is a common set of practices which governs the monitoring and management of TSFs. This practice needs to drive two key things:
Increased transparency of conditions at a TSF, with near real-time visibility of the key metrics which indicate the status of the facility, to enable better triage and management.
A way to share this information seamlessly with auditors and regulators to deliver visibility of conditions at facilities in their remit.
The way forward to develop a regulatory framework is collaboration between auditors, mining companies, technology providers, and regulators. And, the clear way to deliver this common practice is through mining companies investing in remote monitoring technologies.
Only through this unified approach will the whole of the industry begin to align and change the way it operates. As an organisation with a forty year history of involvement in global safety information, Inmarsat’s best available technology will be supporting those ready to engage to deliver safer tailings facility management.
About the author
Joe Carr leads Inmarsat Enterprise’s mining team with the goal of developing unique capabilities to better improve the mining industry. As sector lead, he works with mining companies, integrators and technology partners to develop new systems and solutions to meet the needs of the latest generation of mines.
Joe holds a Master’s degree in Mining Engineering from the Camborne School of Mines. He has spent the last decade in the mining industry, first working on mine development and production and then onto technical consulting, due diligence and management consulting.