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Church of England to convene high-level investor meeting to consider dam safety

Posted on: February 19, 2019 12:43 PM
The aftermath of the Vale dam collapse in Brumadinho, Brazil, last month, which claimed the lives of an estimated 310 people.
Photo Credit: TV NBR / YouTube

The Church of England and a coalition of investors with combined assets of more than £3 trillion GBP have welcomed an announcement on tailings dam safety by global mining company BHP. The coalition, which includes the Church of England Pensions Board and the Church Commissioners for England, issued a joint call last month for a “global independent public classification system” for mining companies’ tailings dams, following the collapse of the Vale dam in Brumadinho, Brazil. The confirmed death toll from the disaster stands at 169 people; with an addition 141 still unaccounted for.

Tailings dams hold mining by-products. Questions have been asked about their safety as tailing dam walls are often built on the muddy mining waste rather than solid ground. In 2015, some 19 people were killed when the Fundão dam at Mariana collapsed, destroying the Brazilian village of Bento Rodrigues. The Brazilian government announced yesterday (Monday) that no new upstream tailing dams can be built; and existing structures must be decommissioned by 2021.

The Church of England investment bodies are working with Swedish Public Pension funds, Dutch funds APG and Robeco, New Zealand Super, UK’s LGPS Central and Canadian fund BMO Global Asset Management to call for new safety standards.

The investors are proposing that the new system should be independent of companies and require annual audits of all tailings dams as well as verification that the highest corresponding safety standards are being implemented. All reporting should be made public through an accessible database that communities, governments, civil society and investors can access.

Today, BHP said it supported the call, and said it was speeding up measures to improve safety at its 115 tailing dams. These are located at seven operated sites in Australia and Chile, with a further seven closed sites throughout North America, and four non-operated joint ventures in North America and South America. The company said that 47 of its tailing dams were constructed using the upstream method – 13 of them are active.

“BHP will continue to accelerate its work with the industry to advance the science and technology required to improve the safety of tailings storage facilities”, BHP said in a message to shareholders. “This includes existing workstreams such as early warning technologies, better models and monitoring of possible modes of failure, tailings dewatering options, and dry tailings storage viability at scale.

“BHP will meet with a number of global bodies this month to expedite this work. BHP welcomes a common, international and independent body to oversee integrity of construction and operation of all tailings storage facilities across the industry.

“In addition, BHP supports calls for greater transparency in tailings management disclosure and will work with the industry to make sure the disclosure is consistently applied and informs better tailings dam stewardship.”

Welcoming the announcement, the Director of Ethics and Engagement for the Church of England Pensions Board, Adam Matthews, said: “communities, workers, banks and investors need the assurance that best practice will become the new minimum requirement across the mining sector. Independence and transparency will be key to re-establishing trust and as investors we look forward to playing our part in working with global experts and industry in advancing the call we have made.”

The Bishop of Birmingham, David Urquhart, will chair a high level meeting of investors, leading global experts and senior industry representatives in London on 4 April to advance the investors’ call.