Avoiding Another Brumadinho Disaster – Regulation and Deeper Engagement

A global regulation and deeper engagement is what is needed to ensure a Brumadinho-style disaster doesn’t happen again, the Secretary-General of the Council on Ethics Swedish National Pension Funds says in a podcast.

Tailings dams – which can stand at a height of dozens of metres and stretch for several kilometres – are the most common waste disposal method for mining companies. Despite their ubiquity, there are no established global mining industry standards defining what a tailings dam is, how to build one and how to care for it after it is decommissioned.

So perhaps it is of no surprise that there have been a handful of dam bursts in recent years – Mount Polley in Canada in August 2014 and the Samarco disaster in Brazil in November 2015. However, it is probably the Brumadinho disaster in Brazil in January 2019 that has garnered most attention.

In the aftermath of the Brumadinho disaster, “we realised that the regulatory systems on this [tailing dams] issue wasn’t working properly and that this was something we were going to have to address,” John Howchin, the Secretary-General of the Council on Ethics Swedish National Pension Funds, said in a podcast hosted by Jason Mitchell, Co-head of Responsible Investment at Man Group. “So, together with the mining industry and UNEP, we are now taking forward one global standard on tailings dams and how to manage risk within tailings dams. Not one local standard or one national standard for one country. It’s a global standard.”

Howchin stressed that there was a need to do more going forward. “We need efficiency within the regulatory framework,” he said, “We, as long-term investors, need to be assured that there is a certain quality within those regulatory frameworks.”

Another way this issue has been addressed is via deeper engagement with mining companies and global regulation, according to Howchin. “Our experience post Brumadinho was that we have to engage much deeper [with the mining companies] on these structural issues,” he said. However, Howchin acknowledged that addressing these issues was not going to without its challenges. “The mining industry is made up of so many small little single mining companies all over the world so it’s going to take a while to get this going,” he said.

Comments may have been edited and condensed for editorial purposes.

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