Credibility Crisis: Brumadinho and the Politics of Mining Industry Reform

USSD Dams and Levees Bulletin

By Dr. Steven H. Emerman, Malach Consulting

The simple story goes like this: On January 25, 2019, a tailings dam failed near Brumadinho, Brazil, killing 270 people, the majority of whom were mineworkers. In response, the International Council on Mining & Metals (ICMM), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) co-convened a seven-person independent expert panel to write the Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management (called "the Standard" in this book review). The process was called the Global Tailings Review (GTR) and included an advisory group that acted as a sounding board for the expert panel. The Standard was released with great fanfare on August 5, 2020, followed by the dissolution of the GTR. On May 6, 2021, ICMM released the Tailings Management Good Practice Guide and Conformance Protocols for the Global Industry Standard, respectively providing guidance on how to implement the Standard and how to audit against the Standard.

The deeper story goes like this: Two out of the seven members of the expert panel, Dr. Andrew Hopkins and Dr. Deanna Kemp, have written a book that is highly critical of the Standard that they helped to write and of the process by which it was written. The 176-page book is called Credibility Crisis – Brumadinho and the Politics of Mining Industry Reform and was published in 2021 by Wolters Kluwer. Dr. Kemp is an academic sociologist and Director of the Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining at the University of Queensland. Dr. Hopkins is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Australian National University. He is a specialist in industrial safety and has participated in numerous industrial accident investigations, such as the BP Texas City Refinery disaster of 2005 and the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill of 2010. Dr. Hopkins has written 13 other books with titles, such as Failure to Learn, Disastrous Decisions, and Nightmare Pipeline Failures.

What went wrong? Something must have gone wrong if the authors of a widely-acclaimed global standard cannot publicly defend the standard. Can the Standard be analyzed as its own kind of "accident," so that we can learn from the accident and avoid repeating the accident in the future? The answers to these questions should be of great interest to the members of USSD, all of whom are devoted to dam safety, and especially to those members of USSD who are involved in writing guidance documents of various kinds.


Read the full article in the US Society on Dams' Dams and Levees Bulletin.