Samarco tailings disaster: this changes everything?

The recent collapse of a tailings dam at the Samarco project in Brazil has caught widespread attention. It was clearly truly awful and exposed, in connection with the Mt Polley dam failure last year, a key weakness in the the mining sector’s efforts to clean up its act. A good source to read on this is Saleem Ali’s blog over at The Conversation. One quote that caught my attention however was this tagged on to the bottom of an interview with Stuart Kirsch about his book on the OK Tedi mine published last year:

 

“the response to the Brazilian disaster suggests that the default assumption now seems to be that corporations are responsible for their environmental impacts, at least when they are caused by sudden events. This is very different than the way BHP dragged its feet for more than a decade after the problems downstream from the Ok Tedi mine became well-known”

 

The times, they are a changin’. What BHP could get away with 10 years ago it can’t now. The mining industry needs to up its game. This strikes me as very similar to Hevina Dashwood’s argument that in the 1990s the mining industry found itself thoroughly out of step with a new discourse of sustainable development. The industry was forced to up its game or lose influence and investment.

 

Of particular note is that this was no frontier cowboy junior operation, this project was co-operated by two of the worlds largest mining companies. Companies that really should know better. The usual excuses do not apply. If these two companies can’t build a facility that doesn’t dump sixty million cubic meters of down a valley, wiping a village off the map, killing at least 13 people, and destroying a river, who can? What hope does the mining industry have when its leading lights cause these kind of catastrophes?

 

These questions may explain quite how many press releases the ICMM has put out in the last few weeks, a remarkable 5 since the beginning of December, including, importantly, a global tailings management review. If nothing else, the industry needs to be seen to be taking this issue seriously. However, if history is anything to go by (and, in all honestly, it may not be) the industry will drag its feet. I think more than any other issue, if the mining industry fails to get tailings management right, it will never stop being the global whipping boy for environmental mismanagement.