Investors launch tailings database and propose principles for responsible mining

The moves are part of ambitious programme for investor and industry action one year on from Brumadinho disaster

A coalition of investors headed up by the Church of England Pensions Board and the Swedish AP Funds today launched a global database of mine waste storage facilities – known as tailings dams – marking tomorrow’s anniversary of the Brumadinho dam disaster that killed 272 Brazilians last year. 

The investors have also called on governments and companies to join them in setting up a global alert system, and set out expectations for mining companies and principles for how investors finance the mining sector.

The database, available here, contains information on a total of 1,939 dams. Figures for the number of tailings dams globally are unknown, though investors have said the number could be as high at 60,000.

The tool allows users to see information about all tailings facilities owned by a company, including previously identified stability issues and potential severity of consequences in the event of a failure.

The total current volume of tailings stored in disclosed facilities is 45.7 billion cubic metres, which is the equivalent to the volume of 11,447 Wembley Stadiums.

"Not reporting is unacceptable and poses a risk to our pension funds" – John Howchin

Future updates to the database are expected to include an investor-focused dashboard and integration of satellite data and AI to identify further tailings dams and monitor “leaching” of tailings materials – an indicator of possible instability.

The launch of the website follows the investors’ disclosure requests to 726 listed companies last year, 395 (54% in total, 26% by market capitalisation) of which still are yet to respond.

John Howchin, Secretary General of the Council of Ethics for the Swedish Public Pension Funds and Co-Chair of the Global Mining and Tailings Safety Initiative, said: “This is a fraction of the dams that exist but it is a start and establishes what we expect from any company seeking finance from investors.  We are continuing to engage with companies that have not disclosed and will use votes and company AGMs to ensure this request is responded to. Not reporting is unacceptable and poses a risk to our pension funds.”

RI understands that 20 asset managers and owners have been appointed to lead engagement with the companies which have yet to disclose. 

The Global Mining & Tailings Safety Summit met today at Church House in Westminster to hear updates on the initiative and discuss next steps, including on engagement and commitment to guiding principles for investors and companies.

Adam Matthews, Director of Ethics and Engagement at the Church of England Pensions Board, who co-chairs the initiative, outlined an ambitious set of “interdependent interventions”, underpinned by investor principles and expectations.

The interventions are: a forthcoming global standard – which the Principles of Responsible Investment (PRI) has co-convened alongside UNEP and the International Council of Mining and Metals; the database; a “24/7 tailings alert system”; an initiative to remove the most dangerous dams; acceleration of tailings technology; and financial reporting and insurance. 

He said the global alert system should be independent and similar to those of the kind seen globally in shipping and aviation, alerting local and national governments, regulators and companies when monitoring reveals concerns.  A further call was made to urgently identify the most dangerous dams and establish a mechanism so that they can be removed.

The work around financial reporting and standards will look at improving quantitative assessment of tailings failure risk in company accounting, while insurance considerations could include “tailings bonds” or other financial products.

The initiative also announced a joint shareholder delegation to Minas Gerais to visit communities affected by tailings disasters of Mariana and Brumadinho to be led by the Bishop of Birmingham, Chair of the Local Authority Pension Fund Forum and including the Church of England Pensions Board, the Council on Ethics for the Swedish National Pension Funds and the PRI.