In the wake of the disaster caused by the dam break at one of BHP Billiton’s jointly owned mines in Brazil, I took a look at the data collection and analysis conducted by Lindsay Newland Bowker and David M. Chambers (pdf) for the Center for Science in Public Participation.
What Bowker and Chambers found is that—in contrast to the prevailing story “that the lower numbers of failures and incidents in the two most recent decades evidence the success of modern mining regulation, improved industry practices and modern technology”—there has been an emerging and pronounced trend since 1960 toward a higher incidence of “Serious” and “Very Serious” failures. In other words, the consequence of loss from Tailings Storage Facility failures has become increasingly greater.
The advances in mining technology over the past 100 years which have made it economically feasible to mine lower grades of ore against a century of declining prices have not been counterbalanced with advances in economically efficient means of managing the exponentially expanding volume of associated environmental liabilities in waste rock, tailings and waste waters. In fact those new technologies which do offer better management of mine wastes usually add significant cost and are often detrimental to bottom line financial feasibility. This is evidenced in a post-1990 trend toward un-fundable environmental losses of greater consequence. This interdisciplinary review of TSF failures 1910-2010 establishes a clear and irrefutable relationship between the mega trends that squeeze cash flows for all miners at all locations, and this indisputably clear trend toward failures of ever greater environmental consequence.