Bringing Mine Tailings to the Boardroom

Closure, Remediation, Base Metals, Bulk Commodities,

Mount Polley

Out of sight, out of mind…

With your eyes glued to a computer screen or a smartphone and enjoying the quiet drive to work in your Tesla, the reality of where the materials that make your digital and renewable technology turn on and hum is far from your mind. 

The building blocks of these technologies are metals and minerals, thus come from mining. The sites where these essential elements are extracted are far from the end consumer and so are its impacts, until it is too late to ignore. 

The global energy transition will need an enormous quantity and diversity of metals and minerals. Low carbon energy technologies require more metals per unit of energy produced than their fossil fuel counterparts.

Global demand for energy transition metals will lead to an increase in mining and an increase in associated land disturbance and mine waste, also known as tailings. 

In the wake of the Brumadinho tailings failure, the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) began a review with institutional investors and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), to survey tailings facilities around the world.

The Global Tailings Review tracked a total of 1,743 unique facilities containing 44,540,000,000 m3 of tailings. This dataset represents only 30.2% of global commodity production.

Understanding the scale of the problem is the first step, but researching how mining companies and investors think about their tailings is the next step in order to create better solutions. But new research shows that the boards making the decisions about mine waste need better information and models.

Sally Innis is a PhD Candidate at the University of British Columbia in the Norman B. Keevil Institute of Mining Engineering. Her research focuses on quantifying present and future tailings risk, such as potential mine waste facility failures, and developing investor risk communication tools. This research includes the development of models for regional risk profiling and qualitative research with mining stakeholders.

We had a chance to sit down with Sally to ask about her research journey to BRIMM at the University of British Columbia.

BRIMM: What is your area of research and interest in mining?

Sally Innis: My research focuses on mine waste and tailings management, in particular on mining industry stakeholders that can orient and improve tailings management practices, and what data and information specific mining stakeholders need to play a role in improved tailings management.

I have a particular focus on institutional mining investors. Following the Brumadinho failure, I interviewed mining investors to understand how failure events influence investment strategies. It was quite clear through that research that investors have a role to play in improved tailings management but a lack of global standards and publicly available tailings risk data impedes mining stakeholder’s ability to influence the tailings space. 

Tailings dam failures are entirely preventable. Looking at case studies of historic tailings storage facility failures, there are, more often than not, management and governance problems working in conjunction with engineering failures that lead to the most catastrophic failures. 

My most recent publication developed a semi-automated empirical tailings flow model which works with the publicly available data from the Global Tailings Portal disclosure. The model is the first of its kind, it can model hundreds of potential tailings flows with minimal data, computing power and time. 

These high-level empirical models are especially helpful for portfolio-level, national or even global understanding of tailings risks. Stakeholders like investors and policymakers, can use these approaches to understand the existing risk contexts within an area or portfolio and use this in improved decision making. 

BRIMM: What is the scale of the mining waste and tailings problem the industry is facing?

Sally Innis: I don’t think there is an English word for the scale of the tailings problem facing the industry, but it is very, very big. For this year’s World Mining Congress in Brisbane, I was part of a team from BRIMM that calculated the amount of copper tailings to be generated by 2050. 

From our models, we found that Chile alone will generate over 1.5 billion tonnes of tailings by 2040. The country will experience exponential growth in waste production and the production will be concentrated in areas of the country that are already under environmental and climatic pressures.  

There are challenges facing the industry in terms of limiting the amount of waste to be generated in the future, but there are also challenges with its historic waste production. Quite conservative estimates suggest that there are around 1,000 mines going into closure within the next 10 years. 

Historically, tailings storage and management have been treated as a cost centre, but growing volumes of tailings generation coupled with mine closures are going to make mining companies start thinking of tailings as a profit centre. I see this shift happening in the industry already, like in tailings reprocessing. 

Every metal is different but there are two main drivers to mining waste and is demand and head grade. The energy transition will create mining waste, but the amount depends on the quality of the deposits we mine. 

If the grade of mining continues to lower, the amount of waste will increase. 

BRIMM: Can mining be truly sustainable in light of its tailings and waste problems? 

Sally Innis:  Any industry that fundamentally depletes a natural resource is not sustainable. However, that doesn’t mean that the industry and the way the industry deals with tailings and waste can’t be as sustainable as possible. Mining is a trade-off, we deplete an ore body, and use local resources to fuel global society and the energy transition. 

There are many opportunities to reduce the impact of mining at the local scale, especially when it comes to tailings. The research coming out of BRIMM speaks to many of these opportunities, such as carbon sequestration in mine tailings, alternative mine energy systems and improved water stewardship standards. 

The mining industry should be held accountable to extract and close mines in the least impactful way possible. But, it’s also important to note that when there is demand for metals, mining is going to happen. Mining can only keep up with technology and innovation so much, there has to be shifts in how society treats demand pressures.

The mining industry can’t be relied on 100% and it also cannot be blamed 100%. We can only expect so much from the industry. Change has to come from within the industry, but society also cannot be completely reliant on only one industry to reach our sustainability goals.

There are so many economic models like the circular economy that can provide a lot of usefulness within the industry to alleviate some of the huge pressures on the industry. It requires the mining industry to work with other industries, but other industries need to reach out and work with the mining industry and not take their supply chains for granted. 

BRIMM: What do you think your research revealed about institutional investors’ approaches to mining?

Sally Innis: My most recent paper looked at 250 facility failures across five countries and their impact on water bodies, communities and protected areas. I looked at these failures from the perspective of institutional investors and policymakers. 

The only interviews I did were with institutional investors. I cannot speak to how they’re investing but in terms of tailings management, the major issue is that investors don’t know what questions to ask to understand their tailings and ESG risks and then make better decisions as investors. 

Investors will visit mine sites, and they look at whether the tailings are in line with local regulation. Typically they are and they have not yet failed. But do they know the quality of the local regulations? These inquiries do not go deep enough.

Institutional investors don’t have the ready access to technical knowledge. Most of them aren’t mining engineers and even if they were those generally aren’t the questions that historically have impacted investment their investment decisions.

But after the Brumadinho, Sanmarco and Mount Polley tailings dam collapses, the costs are too large to ignore and the pressure is on institutional investors to prevent these disasters. 

I hope my research can empower stakeholders, investors, policy makers with more information and to ask different questions and provide models, even if they don’t have the technical knowledge. 

BRIMM: How did you end up at UBC and in particular BRIMM and come to study tailings?

Sally Innis: I actually did my undergrad at UBC, so, when I was looking at graduate schools, I wasn’t considering UBC as I was looking at different institutions. Fortunately, I met my supervisor, Dr. Nadia Kunz, and she checked everything off that I wanted in a supervisor and coming back to UBC was a wonderful decision. 

I have had a very fortunate experience at UBC. I’ve been well funded through NSERC, Mitacs and partnership with a lot of industry grants. John Steen has created a very welcoming environment and brought me into the BRIMM family. 

I work very closely in a group of researchers that has given me access to a PhD education that I really wasn’t expecting to have. I’ve been involved in six or seven published papers.

Without BRIMM, I don’t think that I would be able to have access to industry, academia, policy makers, investors at any other institution.

BRIMM: Thank you Sally for your time and we look forward to seeing you further your research here at UBC.

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Bringing Mine Tailings to the Boardroom

Sally Innis is a PhD Candidate at the University of British Columbia in the Norman B. Keevil Institute of Mining Engineering. Her research focuses on quantifying present and future tailings risk, such as potential mine waste facility failures, and developing investor risk communication tools


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