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Risks of Mine Tailings on Biodiversity

Recent research conducted at the University of Queensland reveals that a significant proportion, nearly a third, of the world’s mine tailings are stored either within or in close proximity to protected conservation areas.

Risks of Mine Tailings on Biodiversity
Spilled waste from the Brumadinho tailings dam in Brazil destroyed 133 ha of Atlantic Forest and 70 ha of protected areas downstream. Image Credit: Diego Baravelli

UQ's Bora Aska, from the Sustainable Minerals Institute and School of the Environment, led a study emphasizing that these waste facilities pose a significant threat to some of the planet's most valuable species and landscapes.

Mine tailings contain the waste and residue that remains after mineral processing, and the storage facilities built to contain it are some of the world’s largest engineered structures.

Bora Aska, Professor, School of the Environment, University of Queensland

She says, “We found of the 1,721 disclosed tailings facilities, 9 % were within declared protected areas and 20 % were within 5 Km. Our findings suggest that mine wastes threaten biodiversity within protected areas all over the world, including 8 active tailings storage dams in Australian protected areas, recognized by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.”

The 2015 Samarco dam disaster in Brazil claimed the lives of 19 individuals as a colossal wave of mining waste inundated villages, farmland, and waterways.

In a tragic recurrence four years later near Brumadinho, Brazil, a dam collapse resulted in the loss of 270 lives. The aftermath devastated 133 hectares of the Atlantic Forest and 70 hectares of Protected Areas downstream.

Given the size of tailings facilities, we’re concerned about the future risks of failures on areas important to biodiversity and conservation of species. To assess the risks, we analyzed a database of global tailings facilities and compared it with spatial data on protected areas.

 Bora Aska, Professor, School of the Environment, University of Queensland

The data stemmed from disclosures made by publicly listed companies within the Mining and Tailings Safety Initiative, established after the Brumadinho disaster.

Associate Professor Laura Sonter from UQ highlighted that handling mine wastes will evolve into a progressively intricate sustainability challenge.

Total tailings production is predicted to increase significantly in the next 30 years due to the growing demand for energy transition metals and declining ore grades. Considering the current global distribution of tailings storage facilities and their failure rate, the consequences for biodiversity could be devastating. Luckily, the data needed to manage these risks is emerging, and opportunities exist to factor this knowledge into the design of new facilities and manage those already in place.

Dr. Laura Sonter, Associate Professor, School of the Environment, University of Queensland

Dr. Laura Sonter says, “We must work expediently toward completely mitigating negative impacts of mining wastes on people and the environment.”

Journal Reference:

Aska, B., et al. (2023). Biodiversity conservation threatened by global mining wastes. Nature Sustainability. doi/2023/11/sensitive-ecosystems-risk-mine-waste

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