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Former Swiss environment official to chair PRI-backed mine tailings dams review

Appointment in wake of Brumadinho dam disaster

The Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI), a mining industry body and the UN Environmental Programme have announced that Professor Bruno Oberle will chair their independent review of mining waste storage facilities (“tailings dams”).

The review, which will seek to establish an international safety standard for tailings facilities, was announced in response to the deadly dam collapse at one of Vale’s mines near Brumadinho, Brazil earlier this year – just a few years after a similar accident in the same region.

Earlier this month, in a separate initiative, a group of 96 investors that issued an ultimatum to miners earlier this month, demanding specific disclosures on every tailings facility under their control.

Oberle, who is a Swiss academic director with experience in governance as well as environmental policy, will oversee the review and prepare a report, expected by the end of the year.

Currently, Oberle works at the International Risk Governance Center at Switzerland’s L’Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), where he is Chair for Green Economy and Resource Governance and Academic Director.

He is also a panel member of the International Resource Panel and a member of the Leadership Council of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network. He was on the Advisory Council of the UNEP Inquiry into a Sustainable Finance system.

He was previously the Swiss Secretary of State for the Environment and Director of the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment.

A multi-stakeholder advisory panel is expected to be appointed soon, with the first meeting anticipated in May.The standard produced will be mandatory for the 27 member firms of the International Council on Mining & Metals (ICMM) and adopted at all their “operational assets” globally, according to Tom Butler, CEO of the industry body.

A spokesperson for ICMM told RI that the standard would apply to all tailings dams that have yet to be decommissioned – i.e. being declassified as a dam and reintegrated into the environment.

The ICMM spokesperson confirmed that all member firms had agreed to the review, but could not confirm who was expected to front any costs associated with ensuring dams meet the standard.

There are thought to be up to 18,000 tailings dams – but no one knows for sure. Experts have alleged that steep costs mean vacated facilities are often left without being decommissioned, though data is not available to back this up.

Research group World Mine Tailings Failures (WMTF) predicts that without changes to regulation and industry practices there will be 19 accidents it categorises as “very serious” between 2018 and 2027.

WMTF executive director Lindsay Newland Bowker welcomed Oberle’s appointment, but told RI she was watching the see if the review would address “core issues”, including advising on when to stop adding tailings to a dam when stability falls below acceptable levels.

Adam Matthews of the Church of England Pensions Board and investor representative of the PRI said: “This review is extremely important to those investors that have publicly called for a new international standard. Professor Oberle will bring independence and rigour to this process.”