A recent report from the United Nations found that while the frequency of dam failures and mine sites around the world has decreased in the past decade the consequences of such failures have been more serious. The report found 40 tallied 40 significant mine waste accidents in the past decade and found better protections are needed for communities downstream of massive material storage sites.
Among the accidents highlighted by the agency were a 2015 dam collapse at a Brazilian iron-ore mine that killed 19 people and the Gold King Mine disaster in the U.S. that spilled pollution into rivers in three Western states.
The iron-ore mine accident in Samarco, Brazil, for example, released some 40 million m3 (52 million cubic yards) of waste that polluted hundreds of miles of rivers and streams.
The United Nationals Environmental Program (UNEP) recommended governments and mining companies adopt a “zero-failure” goal for mining impoundments known as tailings dams and impose stronger regulations.
There are an estimated 30,000 industrial mines worldwide and hundreds of thousands of abandoned mines that continue spewing pollution for decades after they’ve closed.
Advocacy groups said in response to this week’s UNEP report that 341 people have been killed by mine waste accidents since 2008.
The International Council on Mining and Metals last year issued new safety guidelines that said catastrophic mine waste impoundment failures were unacceptable. The group called on companies to use construction methods and operating practices that minimize the chances of accidents.
The 2015 Gold King accident in southern Colorado occurred at an inactive mine where polluted water had been accumulating for years before a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency crew accidentally released it during cleanup work.
The Associated Press reported that Luke Popovich with the National Mining Association in Washington, D.C., said the UNEP recommendations don’t apply to Gold King because it was caused by a government agency and not a mining company.
The EPA last year proposed new rules that would require companies to show they have the financial wherewithal to clean up pollution from shuttered mines. New EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt put the proposal on hold after President Donald Trump took office.