Without euphemisms:


  • The enormous environmental, territorial and social impact of the massive tailings dams generated by mining in Chile was the subject addressed from different perspectives in the Third International Seminar on Mining and Sustainability during Cesco Week.
  • Undersecretary of mining, Pablo Terrazas, gave an account of the National Tailings Policy’s progress.
  • The XPRIZE Zero Wait Mining initiative supported by Anglo American, Antofagasta Minerals and BHP, was introduced during the event.


Santiago, April 11th, 2019.- With the participation of prominent national and international guests and in front of a massive audience, the Third International Seminar on Mining and Sustainability addressed in depth the risks and challenges of mining tailings management.

Iván Valenzuela, Manager of EcoMetales, one of the organizers of the meeting, said that “mining, as an extractive activity, leaves great traces in the earth’s crust, and the tailings are one of the most impressive.” Faced with this, the challenge is to take charge of the environmental footprints and “that can only be tackled in a collaborative and open way to the whole ecosystem”, leaving behind a conservative culture that prevents mining to adapt to new demands, said Valenzuela.

Alejandra Wood, Executive Director of Cesco, praised the seminar for dealing with topics on which one should continue reflecting because “we are going to live with them for a long time”. She positively highlighted the dialogue between the public and private sectors and study centers, because, given the size of the task, it can not be assumed by only one actor.

Progress of the National Tailings Policy

The Undersecretary of Mining, Pablo Terrazas, explained the progress of the National Tailings Policy. Through its pillars of safety, care for the environment and circular economy addresses the challenges of abandoned, inactive and operational dams. Terrazas highlighted the pilot program for monitoring safety indicators (which is carried out in the El Mauro dam) from which mandatory measures are expected to emerge for the future.

Regarding the environment, he referred to the Agreement with the Environmental Assessment Service (SEA) that within the framework of the evaluation of mining projects incorporates the remediation of abandoned or inactive dams as part of the compensation measures, thus diminishing this mining liability. The Ministry of Mining has a prioritized cadastre of 37 deposits to be considered for remediation. With regard to the circular economy, Terrazas said that it is necessary to review the current regulations to facilitate and encourage the reprocessing of material and the recovery of value from the dams.

Facing the risks

Without euphemisms, the great tailings dam disasters that have impacted the communities and territories were addressed, claiming hundreds of lives and millions of losses, particularly in Brazil with two recent and important collapses (Samarco and Brumadinho).

Santiago Montt, Vice President of Corporate Affairs Operations America from BHP, called to assess tailings as complex systems, in which collapses can emerge without a clear error or failure, generating large-scale impacts. This way of defining the problem, he said, implies far exceeding the technical dimension. “Improving the technical aspects generates management slack, but it is necessary to incorporate the organizational, decision-making aspects and, above all, the cultural aspects to manage them as complex systems,” he said.

For his part, Luis Valenzuela, Geotechnical Consultant, said that to face the risks it is vital to go beyond the legal requirements. He wondered why the failure rate of dams in hydroelectric works is much lower than in mining dams. He argued that it is an ethical requirement that companies incorporate into the design, construction and management all other recommendations and good practices of international organizations. When a disaster occurs, it is confidence in the entire industry that it deteriorates, he said.

Luis Valenzuela indicated that the long time in which the dam is under construction represents itself a weakness because it is subjected to changes in policies, budget, and management. The expert stressed that companies should move the tailings management to a place of greater visibility and hierarchy, according to the level of risks it represents and recommended installing the issue of security at the highest level of the companies, in the Boards.

In this regard, Cecilia Arrué, Technical Process Manager of Antofagasta Minerals (AMSA), gave an overview of the standards and reflections being developed by the ICMM (International Council on Mining & Metals) and how AMSA is incorporating them.

When asked about the application progress of the recommendations of the ICMM in Chile, she pointed out that we have to work more in the incorporation of the Climate Change variable into the tailings risk matrix.

Advances and challenges

In two sessions, the speakers highlighted the advances and challenges in tailings management both in Chile and around the world. Glen Corder, Director of the Environment Centers of the Institute of Sustainable Minerals (SMI), University of Queensland, Australia, presented diverse experiences oriented to remediate and/or close operations of tailings, from the disposal of tailings in disused tunnels of underground mining; use of material on roads and surfaces; recovery of value and the use of two pits in disuse for the generation of energy.

He pointed out that all these experiences put mining in the circular economy scenario. Therefore, he suggested incorporating these principles into the entire value chain, thus multiplying the opportunities to reduce waste together with capturing the value of them. 

In terms of technology for disposal, Christian Moreno, JRI specialist engineer, made a detailed characterization and comparison of the emerging technologies for depositing. The submarine one, he said, is seen as an alternative of poor viability. 

The installation of photovoltaic panels on a tailing dam was the experience presented by Anglo American. Ignacio Pérez, Chief of Energy and Copper Emissions, indicated that this pilot is part of the company’s sustainability strategy. The island of 1,200 square meters of solar panels on the Tórtolas dam is compatible with the operation of the tank, avoiding efficiently the evaporation of 300 liters of water per second. 

The recovery of value from tailings dams was presented by Juan Cornejo, Head of Processes and Business, EcoMetales. Cornejo explained the main advances of the R + D program co-financed by Corfo and executed together with JRI and CodelcoTech. The professional gave good news about the identification of methodologies to recover rare earths in dams located in the iron strip, in the regions of Atacama and Coquimbo.

Award to zero-waste mining

During the Seminar, Zenia Tata, Chief Impact Officer, of XPRIZE, reported on the zero-waste mining initiative, the version of the US $ 10 million prize that promotes innovative solutions to reduce waste in mining. Sponsored by Anglo American, Antofagasta Minerals and BHP, the contest is in the design phase to have the first version in 2020.

The initiative rewards the breaking of paradigms to address problems and challenges relevant to humanity in different areas and industries such as health, water, and energy. Zenia Tata said she was optimistic about provoking the emergence of innovative solutions and the industry’s commitment to leveraging these searches with resources. “XPRIZE is in Chile because the mining companies called us. They looked for us, that’s something significant”, she said. 

New mining?

Several speakers pointed out that mining needs to adapt itself to the new times if it wants to be sustainable. “Extracting copper from the mine today is a commodity. What makes the difference is the sustainability, the community relationship, which is key to the empowered and hyperconnected citizen. The miner got his world upside down, a meteorite fell and he was not prepared”, explained Mauro Valdés, President of Alta Ley. 

Santiago Montt called for mining to be humble. Arrogance is the worst recipe for dealing with the problems that arise from complex systems, he said.

Eugenio García, a business consultant and the only non-mining expositor of the seminar, indicated that only the manifestation of citizen’s annoyance will mobilize mining towards change and the adoption of innovations and technology. “If you do not feel the discomfort, you stay in your comfort zone”, he concluded.