THE collapse of a mine in Brazil, which may have killed more than 300 people, has prompted the Church of England’s national investment bodies (NIBs) to call for independent monitoring of the risk posed by tailings dams — some of which stretch for miles.
Failings of such dams “should not be happening”, the Pensions Board’s director of ethics and engagement, Adam Matthews, said last week. “These are not black-swan events. . .This proposal will drive a new level of accountability and transparency within the mining sector.”
The NIBs have been joined by other funds, including Swedish Public Pension funds, with combined assets of more than £1 trillion. The proposed system would be independent of companies and require annual audits of all tailings dams. Reporting would be accessible to communities, governments, civil society, and investors.
Tailings dams are enormous structures that hold the waste produced by mining. A 2001 study by the International Commission of Large Dams and the United Nations Environmental Programme found that, on average, one significant tailings dam incident occurs each year. The collapse of the Córrego do Feijão mine in Brumadinho last month may be the deadliest in Brazil’s history: 134 are dead and 199 are still missing.
On Saturday, a minister in the state of Minas Gerais told Reuters that the evidence pointed to the bursting of the mine, owing to liquefaction. This had been the cause of the collapse of the Samarco dam in 2015. Both mines are owned by Vale (jointly with BHP Billiton in the latter case).
A similar recommendation to that put forward by the NIBs was made to the the International Council on Mining and Metals after this disaster, but was not taken forward.
On Tuesday, Mr Matthews said that both Anglo-American and Rio Tinto had expressed “openness” to the new proposal and that other investors might join the call.
In 2017, when the Church Commissioners adopted a new Extractive Industries Policy, he observed that “the frequency of breeches to tailings dams where life has been lost is too often” and pledged to conduct an annual assessment on companies’ commitment to ethical conduct (News, 10 November 2017). Were these standards not met, the C of E would sell its shares, he said, “but we have high expectations that companies will be responsive”.
On Tuesday, he said that an ethical review of all companies in the sector had been completed: “That will lead to annual assessments and include recommendations about which companies we are concerned about and which we feel we should not remain invested in.” Interventions would need to be made in collaboration with other investors, using the same approach
The Church is also involved in ecumenical theological work on mining: the extractive-industries policy was presented at a half-day round table at Lambeth Palace with CEOs from five mining companies present. Work was still under way to develop the promised “common vision for the mining sector that supported the common good”, Mr Matthews said. The long-term goal was to see the mining industry “transformed to be one which is really positive within communities”.
Dialogue with companies was “often quite difficult”, Mr Matthews said. “This is very systematic change, and we are looking at engaging with it over a . . . period of a decade or so.”
The Church Commissioners have significant investments in the mining industry, including stakes in Anglo American, Antofagasta, BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto, and Glencore (News, 24 October 2014).
In 2010, the Church Commissioners and the Church of England Pensions Board sold their £3.8-million holdings in the UK-based company Vedanta Resources over “concerns about the company’s approach to relations with the communities where it operates” (News, 10 February 2010).