Vale disaster prompts response from leading miners

Vale CEO Fabio Schvartsman in a helicopter overlooking the Feijao breach. Image: Vale

Vale’s tailings dam collapse at the Córrego de Feijão iron ore mine in Brazil last month has caused a ripple effect across the global mining industry, prompting responses from various Tier 1 mining companies.

It was Vale’s second tailings dam incident in just over three years, following the Bento Rodrigues disaster that occurred in the same region, the Brazilian mining state of Minas Gerais, in November 2015.

The response from the Brazilian Government has been swift, with officials announcing earlier this month that all upstream tailings dams in Brazil will be decommissioned and banned by 2021.

A consequence of the disaster is that it has heightened the awareness surrounding tailings dam safety, with several Australian and international producers placing increased emphasis on this element of their operations in recent weeks.

South32 was among the first to highlight its dam management standards, which it placed near the start of its 2019 first half report. The company has involvement in Brazil through a share in the Brazil Alumina bauxite operation.

The company highlighted its operational tailings dam inventory (18 active, 15 inactive), capital expenditure on tailings dams in 2018 ($US37 million) and 2019 ($US57 million), and tailings-related history dating back to May 2015.

This was in stark contrast with the company’s half-year reports for 2017 and 2018, which did not mention tailings management or dams at all.

South32 is a spin-out of BHP, which was a partner with Vale through the Samarco joint venture at the time of the Bento Rodrigues tailings incident in 2015.

BHP chief executive officer Andrew Mackenzie referred to the latest incident as a tragedy that the company was committed to learn from.

“At BHP, we are committed to learn from this. And, as an industry, we must redouble our efforts to make sure events like this cannot happen,” he said at an investor briefing last week,” Mackenzie said.

Anglo American and Rio Tinto also mentioned their tailings processes. Anglo American stated in its full year report last week that its dam at the Minas-Rio mine in Brazil was not constructed using the upstream methods favoured by Vale due to risks associated with the country’s high rainfall.

Rio Tinto, meanwhile, posted what was perhaps the most dramatic response to the disaster, announcing that it would launch a review of its tailings and water storage facility management standards established in August 2015 and last updated in 2017.

The company has 51 tailings facilities in Australia, nine of which are built using the upstream method.

“Rio Tinto is committed to play its part in any industry response, including an independent expert review,” Rio Tinto chief executive Jean-Sébastien Jacques said.

Brazil’s daily iron ore exports tracked higher from February 1–22 this year than the previous February at an average of 1.4 million tonnes a day in spite of the incident, according to a Reuters report released yesterday.