South Africa Tailings Tragedy Shows Need for Stronger Regulation and Effective Enforcement

MiningWatch Canada — Earthworks — Bench Marks Foundation — IndustriALL

On the morning of Sunday, September 11, a tailings dam collapsed at the closed Jagersfontein diamond mine in Free State, South Africa. Local news reports the flood of mine waste killed at least three people and injured 40. The flood swept away houses, damaging at least 20. The tailings flowed over 8 km and left a path over 1.5 km wide. Video of the disaster is available here

De Beers, a unit of Anglo American, closed the mine more than 10 years ago, and at the time of going to press it was not clear who would take full responsibility for the failure. Jagersfontein Development (Pty) Ltd purchased the mine and was re-mining the tailings. The company was ordered to cease the disposal of waste water at the site and community members had repeatedly raised concerns around the stability of the dam.

Local area politicians and the department of water affairs in the past raised concerns about the safety of the tailings facilities but these were seemingly ignored. A provincial government official said on Radio 702 that “The mine owner was also engaged. We were promised that the place would be safe. Water Affairs also issued some warning certificates during the course of this year and of course, this problem was attended to. So, as I say, it was unexpected after the mine owners were warned to stabilise their wall.”

Local activists point to systemic neglect by the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy of the concerns of communities. The lack of independent and effective regulation allows impunity to flourish, they say.

The President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, visited the disaster site on Monday and Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe is expected there on Tuesday.

Research has shown that tailings dams have been failing with increasing frequency and severity. Over the past 40 years, ore grades have declined on average by half for many minerals, effectively doubling the volume of mine waste tailings generated for each unit of mineral produced. While this tailings failure took place in the post-closure phase of the mine, tailings disasters can also occur while the mine is still in operation. Such was the case of the tailings failure at the Zululand Anthracite Colliery in December 2021.

In 2022, 164 scientists, community groups, Indigenous peoples and civil society groups from 34 countries endorsed an updated set of guidelines for improving the management of mine waste disposal facilities. Based on consultation with over 200 stakeholders and experts across five continents, Safety First: Guidelines for Responsible Mine Tailing Management shows that an industry-led tailings standard is failing to keep communities and ecosystems safe. Civil society has used this report to call on regulators and investors to prioritize meaningful steps to improve tailings safety.

Below are statements from civil society organizations based in South Africa, Canada and the United States: 

“Tragedies like these show how communities bear the brunt of irresponsible mine waste management. South Africa has the largest number of upstream tailings dams worldwide, a construction method that is considered unsafe and has actually been banned in some countries. Mining companies must not be allowed to simply walk away from unstable tailings dams. This means that governments must ensure the laws and practices of corporations change to protect communities and ecosystems.”

– Hassen Lorgat of the Benchmarks Foundation in South Africa
and convenor of the South African Tailings Working Group

“It is clear that mining companies continue prioritizing their bottom lines over community safety in tailings management. Governments must ensure that companies make safety the primary consideration in tailings facilities and dam design, construction, operation, closure and post-closure, and those measures must be independently verified.”

– Jamie Kneen of MiningWatch Canada

“At present, industry standards and governmental regulations still do not go far enough to adequately protect communities and ecosystems from tailings failures. Effective tailings management is impossible without both civil society oversight, and that of independent professionals. Affected communities, Indigenous Peoples, labor, and civil society organizations must be engaged in decision making processes around tailings management and undue influence by the mining sector must be mitigated.”

– Jan Morrill of Earthworks

"This raises the spectre of other potential dam collapses around the country nor is it the first time. While ICMM takes the responsibility on behalf of its members through the the Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management, not every operator is in the tent."

– Glen Mpufane of IndustriALL Global Union

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