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Merriespruit, 22 February 1994

We remember the events at Merriespruit, a suburb in the gold mining town of Virginia in South Africa’s Free State province.

On 22 February 1994, the Merriespruit No 4 tailings dam failed after a torrential downpour and some 600,000m³ of water and tailings poured over a distance of 4km, engulfing 80 Merriespruit homes and claiming the lives of 17 people.

The official investigation into the disaster showed that the tailings dam did not have the mandated freeboard* to cope with this rare kind of rain storm. Line management and the contractors responsible for managing the dam were held directly responsible. *Freeboards are used to control water and minimise the possible uncontrolled spilling of water and/or tailings.

In South Africa, the Merriespruit disaster led to the development of a mandatory Code of Practice Mine Residue Deposits for all operators of tailings dams. This set new standards, that includes the management of excess water, an increase in the height of perimeter walls, qualification requirements for tailings dam management personnel and limits on how close human habitation should be allowed to encroach on tailings dams.

In the years that followed, South Africa ranked among the international mining domains leading the way in terms of tailings dam management standards.  Following the catastrophic tailings dam failures at Mount Polley in Canada in 2014 and at Samarco in Brazil in 2015, the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) – whose members are the world’s leading mining companies and more than 30 national associations, including the Minerals Council South Africa – assumed a greater leadership role.

When tragedy struck again – this time at Brumadinho in Brazil on 25 January 2019, where a tailings dam failure claimed 200 lives, the Minerals Council South Africa’s Board resolved that all members should review their tailing storage facilities’ construction, maintenance and operating protocols to ensure the stability and safety of these facilities for the surrounding communities.

In 2020, the ICMM published the Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management (GISTM) which strives to achieve the ultimate goal of zero harm to people and the environment. The Standard aims to prevent catastrophic tailings dam failure and enhance the safety of tailings facilities across the globe. It is directed at operators and applies to tailings facilities, both existing and those to be built. It also clarifies that extreme consequences to people and the environment from catastrophic tailings facility failures are unacceptable.

The GISTM comprises six key points:

  1. Project-affected people must be afforded opportunities for meaningful engagement in decisions that affect them throughout the tailings facilities’ lifecycle.
  2. Operators must develop knowledge about the social, environmental and local economic context of a proposed or existing tailings facility.
  3. The ongoing use of an updated knowledge base, consideration of alternative tailings technologies, the use of robust designs and well-managed construction and operation processes must be used by operators to demonstrate the ability to upgrade a facility at a later stage.
  4. The designation and assignment of responsibility to key roles in tailings facility management must focus on the ongoing management and governance of a tailings facility.
  5. There must be a focus on emergency preparedness and response in the event of a tailings facility failure where operators plan ahead, build capacity and work collaboratively with other parties, in particular, communities.
  6. Operators must commit to transparency and participate in global initiatives to create standardised, independent, industry-wide and publicly-accessible information about tailings facilities.

As of 5 August 2020, all ICMM members committed to implement the GISTMThe Minerals Council South Africa supports the GISTM and calls on all its members to study the Standard and to work towards ensuring that their tailings management systems are in line with those contained in the Standard. All tailings facilities operated by members with 'extreme' or 'very high' potential consequences are committed to be in conformance with the Standard by 5 August 2023. All other tailings facilities operated by members not in a state of safe closure are to be in conformance with the Standard by 5 August 2025.

As the mining industry recalls and mourns the lives of those men, women and children whose lives were cut short on that evening of 1994 in Merriespruit, we recommit ourselves to ensuring that mining is safe for our country’s mineworkers, their families and the surrounding communities.