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Reducing the social risks of mine tailings management

Enviro Integration Strategies and O Trade have joined forces to develop a solution that allows mining companies to assess and mitigate the potential social risks associated with tailings storage facilities

Written by Karen Chovan and Monica Ospina

The social impacts of mine wastes, and in particular, flowable tailings materials, can bring vulnerability for mines, regions, and communities, translating directly into risk for all stakeholders involved.

As we have witnessed from recent waste failures, the loss of tailings containment can induce a wide range of severe negative impacts, with the most well recognised being possible fatalities and/or environmental damage. The rapid distribution of tailings materials can physically damage essential and recreational infrastructure, and can also contaminate water, soil, and air, devastating ecological services of the impacted area.

These impacts can be then translated into economic loss for the regional communities, where the size of loss is dependent on the nature, extent, and density of the settlement. The potential for severe social and regional economic impacts, combined with the negative perceptions of mining as a risk for local communities, can easily lead to opposition to future developments by the same company, and on a larger scale, to a reputational risk to the mining industry.

Communities and local governments uninformed about the potential of failure risks and/or not included in mitigation mechanisms can be directly exposed and left without emergency disaster response mechanisms, and without assistance in restoring their livelihoods.

As a result of some major failures, a new standard was published in 2020 – the Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management (GISTM). This was quickly followed by issue of new implementation guidance for the GISTM, produced by the International Council of Mining and Metals (ICMM), as well as an update to the long-standing, pre-existing protocols and guides on tailings management, of the Mining Association of Canada’s Towards Sustainable Mining initiative.

The GISTM focuses on many aspects with the aim to reduce the potential for catastrophic tailings facility failures. It strives for zero harm, and emphasises transparency, accountability, and rights of project-affected people.

With all of these new standards and updates, one might be led to believe that the mining industry has been randomly building these waste facilities in whatever fashion they wish; however, nothing could be further from the truth.

What has the GISTM brought to the forefront that might have been in the shadows before? And how else do we think further improvements can be made?

In short, deeper integration of social considerations in analysis and decision-making, and transparency. To be effective, this requires a process that assesses the social areas of risk and is linked to professional engagement to ensure inclusion and participation of external stakeholders. This would lead to a more responsible approach to decision-making and associated risk management, as well as the most effective risk mitigation strategies for tailings management.

The GISTM strives for zero harm, and emphasises transparency, accountability, and rights of project-affected people. Image: O Trade

Planning tailings management

Herein, we turn our eyes to the work done by mining companies, behind the scenes, to ensure a mine can be developed safely, particularly in managing its by-products or wastes, which can remain forever at a property after the mine owner is long gone.

Today, geotechnical design, dam safety, and social and environmental impact analyses are well established practices in industry. There are many iterations of studies done to reduce the risks of these facilities, throughout the entire lifecycle of each one, and companies following best practices will frequently review and update these analyses.

In the case of social impacts of mine wastes, what work is actually done to mitigate risks of these impacts? And what else are we recommending for improvements to, first, ensure a sustainable supply of minerals, while protecting people and the environment; second, allow the path to obtaining a social license to operate; and third, align with social good?

To understand potential hazards to avoid, research and investigations are completed at the start of developing a mine plan to understand all of the climate and environmental conditions of the site in general, and then more detailed subsurface analyses are performed for specific locations where facilities might be placed.

From the social and environmental management perspective, mining projects in the permitting process should complete the environmental impact assessment (EIA), and ideally, expand to completion of separate social impact assessments (SIA). Results of these studies not only provide a broad understanding of social baseline, regional socio-economic dynamics, but also determine the area of influence of the project, and special considerations in the case of indigenous peoples and ancestral land.

From here, combinations of technology and facility configurations are conceptually designed and compared, each rated against multiple criteria, including technical stability and financial feasibility, as well as potential environmental, social, and socio-economic impacts determined in the EIA and SIA, to help determine the best alternatives to advance.

Rigorous design iterations ensue for the selected options, testing ranges of site conditions, construction and infill rates, variable material characteristics and water pressures within. A large number of engineering and then administrative controls are built into the design of the physical structure and management systems.

From here, community relations personnel prepare and execute stakeholder engagement plans, communication plans, and social risk management plans. Considerations around impact to people in the affected areas are determined to the overall project area of influence. Results of these engagements help to finalise the preferred option.

Finally, layers of surveillance, oversight and third-party review are applied to the approved option to ensure that what has been designed is actually built and operated according to those designs.

Unfortunately, some operators ignore the importance of SIA in managing social risk and build relations based on trust with its stakeholders. For the case of tailings management, projects rarely identify the areas of risk for tailings dam failures, and neither engage stakeholders in dialogue about the risk and mitigation mechanisms, nor in co-creating emergency preparedness plans.

Some operators ignore the importance of social impact assessments in managing social risk. Image: O Trade

Potential mistakes

Where can things fall apart? First, having any work done by underqualified people is a huge mistake – tailings and social management are specialised fields of knowledge that must be applied to this challenge.

Second, a robust design can only be developed using detailed site-specific information, including local social considerations – every single facility is unique.

Third, every facility should have regular reviews by a third-party expert, or group of experts – for all people can be blind to their own mistakes and misses.

Fourth, there must be designated accountable and responsible individuals who will ensure that all gaps and recommended actions are taken care of in an effective and efficient manner.

Fifth, everyone involved with the design, construction, operation and oversight of the facility must be distinctly aware of the risks and responsibilities that they are managing through their role, as well as how their roles interact with the internal and external stakeholders. In addition, all control mechanisms and performance of said controls must be clearly communicated to all involved stakeholders, so that it is clear when something is not going according to plan. Without this, visibility of leading risk indicators will go un-noticed.

Sixth, open dialogue, a culture of safety, and clear communications are crucial – redundancy, overlapping surveillance, transparency, and multiple eyes on maintaining safety are keys to success. Particularly when it comes to use of site-specific information, decision-making, and communications, engagement and involvement of local stakeholders, and integration of local concerns, knowledge, and perspectives, are essential.

Engagement and involvement of local stakeholders, and integration of local concerns, knowledge, and perspectives, are essential. Image: O Trade

A potential solution

Tailings Area of Social Risk (TASR) is such a solution – designed by combining geo-environmental and social science and motivation to bring an easily implementable answer for each mining operation to the mining industry.

Over the past two years, O Trade and Enviro Integration Strategies have worked in collaboration in defining a scientific process that determines the potential areas of social risk, and allows professional engagement of stakeholders who could be directly impacted. This solution is aimed at assisting mining companies in mitigating social and operational risk, and working towards trusting relationships with stakeholders, internally and externally, by demonstrating accountability and responsibility.

The strategic areas covered by TASR address three critical issues: building a realistic knowledge base for consideration of the potential social impacts of dam failure; enhancing engagement and communication regarding sensitive risk information and its use in decision-making and design; and the ability to effectively plan and prepare for emergency response, disaster recovery and livelihood restoration in the event of potential failure.

With internationally recognised standards and principles calling for mining companies to adopt Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) principles in the engagement of indigenous peoples and a similar approach in the engagement of traditional communities and work with local governments, the process of TASR-based assessment provides a realistic solution for standards compliance.

Companies that apply the TASR process could be better positioned to identify and mitigate risks, so that they can be more effective in incident prevention, as well as avoiding and managing the crisis and conflicts associated with mining waste failures.

Through early and effective community engagements, there is a greater chance of social acceptance and minimising the impact on the social licence to operate (SLO) for mining projects, where human rights and indigenous and tribal rights can be effectively addressed, allowing a space of trust and collaboration.

The best ways to ensure that people within the TASR can be assured of their safety and protections in the event of any unforeseeable event are transparency regarding the inherent hazards of the site and development, the infrastructure risks created by the site, and in all of the processes followed to uphold and maintain safety.

This, in our opinion, is akin with maintaining social good alongside all the other benefits highlighted by industry.

Enviro Integration Strategies and O Trade are looking for a mining company partner to pilot the TASR. If you would like to learn more about the solution and/or potential collaborative opportunities visit O Trade’s website or contact or

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