Principles for Responsible Investment teams up with industry body on mine tailings review

Investor response to Brumadinho disaster seen as litmus test for RI sector

The Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) has teamed up with a mining industry body and the UN Environment Programme on a review of mine “tailings” storage in the wake of the Vale mine dam disaster in Brazil.

The deadly dam collapse at Vale’s Córrego do Feijão mine near the city of Brumadinho in January galvanised investors, with the issue being seen by some observers as a litmus test for responsible investment given that there was a similar accident, at the Samarco dam, just a few years before.

Now the PRI, the International Council on Mining & Metals (ICMM) and UNEP have announced that they will co-convene an independent review that will establish an international standard on tailings storage facilities.

While the standard would become an ICMM company member commitment, the partners are encouraging others to join in advocating for it to be accepted more broadly.

This initiative “will be informed by evidence and lessons from earlier mine tailings dam failures”. The aim is to complete this work by the end of the year.

The PRI will be represented by the Church of England Pensions Board and the Council of Ethics of the Swedish National Pension Funds, who are both PRI signatories.

But the initiative met with criticism from Lindsay Newland Bowker, Executive Director of non-profit group World Mine Tailings Failures, who told RI it was “weak and disappointing”.She said: “This isn’t a ‘responsible investor’ issue in the sense of investing green. This is about fundamental fiduciary obligations to investors. This is about the fundamental omission of critical issues of risk analysis. This is about a fundamental abnegation of very basic fiduciary obligations.”

There are thought to be up to 18,000 “tailings” dams – but no one knows for sure. World Mine Tailings Failures predicts that without changes to regulation and industry practices there will be 19 accidents it categorises as ‘very serious’ between 2018 and 2027.

The Church of England and the AP funds spearheaded an investor initiative shortly after the disaster calling for profound changes to industry management of tailings dams – the storage facilities for toxic mining waste. This has now mushroomed into a £5trn project in short order.

As a next step the review co-convenors will jointly appoint an independent chair and a multi-stakeholder advisory panel. There will be a further update once the chair has been appointed. Neither the PRI nor ICMM responded to questions about the costs and funding for the review.

Newland Bowker said she had called for investors to make immediate demands for information that should be already readily available and that the ICMM itself should “be a respondent not a co-creator of that demand”.

She characterised the partners as “looking for a cave to hide in until the storm blows over”. Previous RI coverage here