United Nations calls out Canadian mining companies for catastrophic spills

Global action and tougher rules needed to prevent toxic dam breaches, U.N. says
November 15, 2017, 4:07pm

The United Nations is calling out mining companies worldwide for spilling toxic chemicals into the environment, with the 2014 Mount Polley disaster in B.C. cited as an example of corporate irresponsibility.

More than 40 spills from mining operations have released toxic chemicals into the environment over the last decade, said the United Nations Environment Programme report, including seven which made international headlines. These spills occurred in Canada, Mexico, Brazil, China, the U.S. and Israel.

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The increasing number and size of tailings dams, which store mining waste, is magnifying risk, the report says. Although the number of dam breaches have decreased in the last decade, the number of serious failures have increased, the report found. Canada alone has had seven major tailing spills in the last decade, with most of those being serious dam failures, according to the U.N.

For example, the Mount Polley copper and gold mine in British Columbia, owned by Imperial Metals, spilled 25 million cubic metres of tailings and wastewater into a lake in 2014, the U.N. said, calling it “the largest environmental disaster in Canadian mining history.”

The dam failure was partially due to internal erosion, and because the design didn’t take into account the fact it was built on a foundation of silt and clay. An Auditor General’s report also found the company wasn’t operating the dam according to its approved design.

“Indigenous peoples … face enormous uphill struggles for justice and accountability in the wake of mining disasters”

As a result of the spill, Indigenous people in the area were unable to hunt or fish, or use their traditional territories. To date, there have been no government charges, but Indigenous people and advocacy groups are suing the company that operated the mine.

The report also singles out a major disaster in Brazil in 2015. That year, a dam collapse at the Samarco mine, owned by BHP Billiton and Vale, causing a tsunami of 33 million cubic metres of orange waste to surge downstream, flooding communities on its way to the Atlantic. The fishing and tourism industries are still suffering today.

“Indigenous peoples and marginalized communities around the globe face enormous uphill struggles for justice and accountability in the wake of mining disasters,” Tara Scurr of Amnesty International Canada said in a statement in response to the report. “The UNEP assessment is a welcome acknowledgement of the importance of mining waste safety in the protection of human rights.”

The report calls on regulators, companies and affected communities to adopt a preventative approach with a goal of zero failures. It also calls on companies to ensure “cost should not be a determining factor” in deciding how mines store waste in tailings dams.