World’s first public database of mine tailings dams aims to prevent deadly disasters
Previously unreleased data offer unprecedented view into mining industry’s waste storage practices
Environmental organization GRID-Arendal has launched the world’s first publicly accessible global database of mine tailings storage facilities. The database, the Global Tailings Portal, was built by Norway-based GRID-Arendal 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 now, there has been no central database detailing 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.
“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, categorized 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 coincides 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.
For more information on tailings dams, see the 2017 report “Mine Tailings Storage: Safety Is No Accident” and the related collection of graphics, which are available for media use.
GRID-Arendal supports environmentally sustainable development by working with the UN Environment Programme and other partners. We communicate environmental knowledge that motivates decision-makers and strengthens management capacity. We transform environmental data into credible, science-based information products, delivered through innovative communication tools and capacity-building services.