NPR

U.N. Body Alarmed Over Mining Waste Disasters

A report by the United Nations Environmental Programme offers recommendations to stop the failure of dams holding mine waste. Will governments and industry leaders sign on?
Brazilian 76-year-old farmer Jose Pascual walks through a devastated area in Paracatu de Baixo village on October 2016, one year after a mine waste flood destroyed the town. The village was ruined in 2015 by a flood following the collapse of Brazilian mining company Samarco's waste reservoir, killing 19 people. Source: YASUYOSHI CHIBA

Some of the worst mining disasters do not happen in mines.

They take place at dams.

After minerals are extracted from mines, there are waste materials — including sand, rock and chemicals. They're known as "tailings" and are permanently stored in dams constructed of earth, rock-fill or concrete.

But the dams can fail — from chemical erosion caused by the tailings and from disasters like floods and earthquakes. And the toll can be devastating.

That is the message in a report by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) released in November. It is the first time the U.N. has documented the widespread destruction caused by these dam failures.

In 2014, for broke, spilling billions of gallons of mine waste into a nearby creek. The and water washed away trees and . Lingering environmental effects from the Mount Polley Disaster, as it is known, are still felt to this day.

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