Informed mining: risk reduction through enhanced public and institutional risk awareness (IM AWARE)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Liverpool
Department Name: Civil Engineering and Industrial Design


Lax governance policies allow poor business practices which can lead to dramatic disasters and shocking fatalities. In reaction to the consequent public outcry, legislation tightens governance policies. There have been countless examples of this cycle, including laws resulting from boiler explosions, drug scams, and events such as the Johnstown flood. We must short-circuit this upward spiral so it does not require the fatalities to drive it forward. Scientifically grounded multistakeholder governance has been proposed as a scheme to accomplish this, but little empirical evidence shows it is useful, especially in the context of countervailing economic forces and entrenched interests.

Despite the enhanced awareness with several recent high-profile mine tailings dam disasters, mine operators and site workers do not practice good risk management. Several factors have been proposed including a lack of trust and fear of reprisal. This is exacerbated by failed efforts to reduce the vulnerability of communities through relocation of settlements, which are usually met with suspicious protests. A general climate of fear is precipitated by the misconception that risk management is counterproductive to economic competitiveness.

The project explores the beliefs of stakeholders constructed because of dominating actors, cultural factors, and the local context. Interviews will explore individual perceptions of risk and their implications for the co-development of mitigation strategies. The results will inform the multistakeholder workshops, each convened to address specific challenges relating to participatory management. Participant experience will be evaluated, as will approaches for communication and the role of science in this interaction. Sociocultural metrics for (i) risk neglect, (ii) low propensity to trust, (iii) distance to power (empowerment and social responsibility), and (iv) short-termism/commodity mentality will also be evaluated in the initial interviews and throughout the project. This creates an evidence base for the efficacy of multistakeholder governance models for mine tailings storage. Applying this across two case studies at different sites will evidence the adaptive capacity of the approach, and justification for its adoption across Brazil. A problem in participatory management is information asymmetry. Science can assuage this problem and provide a context for discussion and common decision making.

The project will evaluate the effect of risk awareness on motivating near-term engineering interventions (e.g., decanting, pipe draining, etc.) and directing long-term construction and business practices of the industry that will reduce deaths and other risks suffered by economically disadvantaged vulnerable downstream populations, and preventing destruction of agricultural lands and the environment generally. The work will seek to demonstrate risk awareness does not threaten but can enhance economic competitiveness, addressing disaster management and sustainable development, even for mining operations, by sustaining mine operations, improving health of workers, reducing adverse impacts on workforce, reducing legal liabilities from dam failures and leachate releases, and forestalling legislative and regulatory strictures.

The interests of mine owners and at-risk communities are not commonly seen as aligned. However, using science as the medium for identifying common interests, the project will create an evidence base addressing the efficacy of different schemes in efforts to reduce information asymmetry and, particularly, the use of scientific analysis to enhance risk awareness and communication which are fundamental to participatory management. The project's empirical results will be broadly relevant to other implementations of multistakeholder governance schemes, and its specific software developments are directly applicable to stability of water dams and landslides which are among the deadliest hazards.

Planned Impact

The project was co-created with academics and regulators in Brazil via site visits to Brazil by three Liverpool staff. The work begins with a meeting of all researchers in Rio de Janeiro, followed mutual international secondments and regular virtual and in-person meetings.

The research benefits regulators ANM and ANP. It integrates state-of-the-art software and monitoring tools specifically co-developed to make quantitative estimates of frequency, severity, and consequences of tailings dam failures and leachate. The tools will be co-created by a transnational team consisting of sociologists, human and natural geographers, engineers, anthropologists, ecologists, and mathematicians. Regulators will deploy a comprehensive tailings dam reliability assessment tool with support for near-real-time monitoring of structures, an early warning system, and a GIS-based community vulnerability model of the physical geography and demographic data for communities surrounding the sites, and a quantitative model for the long-term ecological and human health impacts of runoffs and dam failure. These tools use cutting-edge mathematical and computational methods to dynamically analyse and monitor risk and vulnerabilities, and make these analyses accessible to regulators. The regulators anticipate these tools will enhance their analytical capabilities in risk assessment, management and risk awareness. ANM and ANP will also benefit from several fee waivers for PhD studentships for their staff members, thus enhancing the enduring capacity of the regulatory agencies.

At-risk communities will benefit. Over the next decade, 30 serious or very serious dam failures are predicted worldwide (Bowker and Chambers 2017), amounting to the release of almost a billion cubic meters of tailings material, likely polluting major rivers along thousands of kilometers. These events result in contamination of drinking water supplies, extensive fishkills, and in many cases irreparable damage to affected landscapes. Even absent catastrophic dam failure, runoff and leachates from mine tailings storage sites pollute waters with chronic intensities. The major products created by the analytical tools co-developed with the regulatory authorities are designed to be accessible to people without special skills to redress information-asymmetry and, through multistakeholder collaboration, tackle mistrust. Empowered by information and interpersonal relationships, the communities can increase their influence on decisions affecting the deadly and environmental risks they bear.

Site workers experience these risks too, plus occupational hazards, and economic risks of faltering employment. If successful, the project will benefit the economy of Brazil. UNEP (2017) argues that the Sustainable Development Goals "should support and underpin the mining industry's contribution to development objectives and their social licence to operate" which should acknowledge that poor tailings storage facilities can be fatal for communities and can cause widespread environmental damage. UNEP (ibid.) argues that sustainable development requires information sharing and dialogue with stakeholders are required or every every mine with transparent compliance "to establish a practical and ethical basis for mining to contribute to sustainable development".

Other DAC nations (e.g., Zambia, Ghana, China, Myanmar, Philippines) will also benefit from the project as its methods can be applied to other mine tailings dams (which fail hundreds of times more often than water dams).

Other academics and policy makers interested in the utility of multistakeholder governance models and participatory management will also benefit by the aggregation of an evidence base directly relevant to this question. Little such evidence exists, although social auditing schemes for encouraging social responsibility of corporations have been developed and studied, including in Brazil (Maimon and Ramos 2015).


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Description Extensive discussions have begun with the regulatory authority governing mining operations in Brazil. We have redesigned the delivery plan in light of the COVID pandemic restrictions on travel and placed greater emphasis on the development software co-designed with the regulator. The delay in our ability to engage with at-risk vulnerable communities in Brazil has led to a focus on developing a taxonomy for and mapping the impacts of manifold cultural and societal factors and how they influence relationships among stakeholders the way they interact with the mine industry and actors. This will contribute to new requirements by the regulator on mine operators about how they interact with culturally diverse adjacent communities.
First Year Of Impact 2021
Sector Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Policy & public services