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Pensions Board puts pressure on mining companies to adopt global safety standards

28 January 2022

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Red balloons and coloured smoke are used in a ceremony to mark the second anniversary, in January 2021, of the Vale SA tailings-dam disaster in Brumadinho, Brazil

Red balloons and coloured smoke are used in a ceremony to mark the second anniversary, in January 2021, of the Vale SA tailings-dam disaster in Brumad...

ON THE third anniversary of the mining disaster that killed 270 people in Brumadinho, in Brazil (News, 8 February 2019), the Church of England Pensions Board has stepped up the pressure on companies to adopt new global safety standards.

The disaster happened when a mine-waste facility, a tailings dam, collapsed. The new Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management was developed in response by a coalition of investors led by the Pensions Board and the Council on Ethics of the Swedish AP Funds (News, 12 April 2019). Now, they have published the names of the companies that have committed themselves to the new measures.

Seventy-nine mining companies — one third of those employing tailings dams — have either made a commitment to the new Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management or are still assessing their compliance. The list includes several of the largest companies, including BHP, Anglo, Glencore, Rio Tinto, and Vale.

The Brumadinho disaster of 2019 is not an isolated incident. Another 12 such collapses have been reported in the past three years. In three instances — two of which took place in Myanmar and one in Peru — workers were killed. The collapses also cause significant environmental damage.

The Chief Responsible Investment Officer for the Pensions Board, and chair of the global-investor Mining and Tailings Safety Initiative, Adam Matthews, said this week that the legacy of the Brumadinho disaster was a “completely reformed” mining sector.

“We now have a Global Industry Standard where previously one did not exist, and investors are working intensively with the UN, industry, and other stakeholders to establish the first independent global Institute to verify the Standard is being applied at individual mine sites,” he said.

“Tailings safety remains a clear and present risk to communities and the environment as well as to those invested in companies or providing them with insurance or banking facilities.”

Doubts remain that the issue is being universally addressed, however.

“We are encouraged by the number of companies that have confirmed they will adopt the Global Industry Standard or are assessing alignment. However, any company that sets itself against the Standard will face considerable scrutiny from investors.

“As a first step, we will vote against the chair of those companies, and are considering shareholder resolutions. If the chair of a board does not see this as a major risk that requires the highest standards of operation, then they themselves pose a risk to us as a shareholder in that company.”

The former secretary general of the Council of Ethics of the Swedish AP Funds, John Howchin, is to become the global ambassador for the initiative and work with investors, mining companies, and stakeholders to create an independent Global Tailings Management Institute.

“Brumadinho should never have happened,” he said this week. “Mining companies, regulators, investors, and governments carry the responsibility that we secure existing dams and that any future expansion of mining happens only with the highest best-practice standards.”

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