In the shadow of the “supercycle”,[1] and propelled by its dysfunctional economic dynamics, risk and public liability from mine tailings storage facility (TSF) failures have reached all-time highs. The annual failure rate for significant TSF events has escalated from a 50-year average of 0.56 “Very Serious“[2] TSF failures per year (33/50) to 1.0 (10/10) for the period of price run up 2000-2010 as described by the HHWI (Rossen, Anja 2015), a 78% increase. In this period, copper prices steadily climbed reaching an all-time post war3 high of $9411 per ton ($2015) in 2011 as compared to the prior 50 year average price of $5133. These facts challenge the widely held notion that failures are mainly shaped by falling prices. They point to more fundamental and still not fully examined or understood root causes of TSF failures.


What is apparent in the forensic record is that the increasing severity and frequency of high consequence failures reflects in part an aging infrastructure at depleted mines which are no longer economically viable even at record high prices. There are also indications that many were never viable and were just abetted into existence through venture capital on loosely regulated exchanges or advanced on faulty feasibility studies.

What seems apparent and even widely understood within the industry, though not yet widely acknowledged, is that we have reached the outer limit of the mining industry’s long standing metric that ever lower grades of ores can be mined through “economies of scale”. A close examination of the data seems to show that the “mining metric”[3] stopped working sometime in the mid 90’s. It is from this turning point in the efficacy of the mining metric that conditions which evolve to catastrophic failure began forming, incubating and progressing. During the supercycle as prices climbed to all-time post war highs, grades, even at major producing large mines, dropped to all-time lows. Meanwhile mines still premised on this economies of scale model continue to be put forward with unverifiable claims of economic viability, or with a reasonable expectation of full compliance with external environmental and other community protective standards.

The data increasingly dictate that we need a completely new approach to navigate this new era of mining. We need action to identify and correct already accrued public liability the end of this era has left behind in standing operating TSFs. This can only be accomplished through the application of comprehensive law and policy addressed to these two imperatives. The fragmented legal frameworks for mining in most prevalent use today globally have conclusively demonstrated their failure to adequately protect the public interest. Post Mt. Polley, and now post Fundão, none of the much publicized government and industry studies and reforms announced address the key root causes of high severity high consequence tailings failures or commit to any changes in law and policy that will be effective in preventing the man made losses in existing, not yet closed marginal mines.

This is the introduction for our soon to be released new research on how the longest and biggest price rise in recorded history created the biggest elevation ever in portfolio risk , not just on the public liability side as measured in trends of TSF failures but on the investment side as well.

Here are a few of the highlights of the dysfunctional and damaging economics of the supercycle.


The Co-Entanglement of Supercycle Economics & TSF Failures


It is irrefutable that the frequency and consequence of Very Serious Failures and of “Serious”[4] Failures is continuing to increase at alarming rates, that the trend emerged and grew post 1990 and that it is in large part a consequence of conscious decisions made at the mine-level to make up for fundamental mine and miner specific economic disadvantages viz global economics. Short cuts on waste management, especially of tailings management, were and are a fast, easy, under the radar way to try to meet the high production volumes and low cash costs investors insist on (Bowker & Chambers 2015, Bowker & Chambers 2016).


The dysfunctional, reactive economics of the supercycle are expertly analyzed and well characterized by Deloitte in their 2014 market trend analysis.In their relentless pursuit of growth in response to pressure from investors and analysts, companies developed massive project pipelines. Some also developed marginal mines, hoping commodity prices would buoy poor project economics. In their headlong pursuit of volume, many mining companies abandoned their focus on business fundamentals. They compromised capital allocation decision making in the belief that strong commodity prices would compensate for weak business practices. Rather than maintaining a long-term view of the market, many acted opportunistically.”(Deloitte 2014).

Price Waterhouse Coopers, looking at the performance of the top 40 over the supercycle, note that much of the massive commitment of capital to expansion and production at any cost ended up as impairment write offs: “… from 2010-2015, the top 40 have impaired the equivalent of a staggering 32% of the capex incurred”. They note that $36 billion, or 68 % of the total impairments, were taken by Glencore, Freeport Vale and Anglo American and that “2015 saw the first widescale mothballing of marginal projects”. The top 40 took a collective net loss of $27 billion and investors punished them for “squandering the benefits of boom” and for “poor capital management and investment decisions“. (PWC 2016).

It is in this dysfunctional “maximum production at any cost” dynamic of the supercycle that we see a dramatic upturn in the frequency and severity of failures, and in which there is with very little doubt a higher global portfolio risk of accrued and unexamined public liability. Changes in waste rock to metals ratios for gold suggest the possibility of a more than 100% increase in the level of potential unexamined risk (SRS Rocco 2016).

The amount of capital just wasted during the supercycle would have gone a very very long way to correcting everything that needs correcting in all the pollution generating waste piles in all the mines in the world.  Instead it just became investor losses and unfunded mine catastrophe’s .
To achieve stability and a lower public liability profile the system does need to be cleansed of the 30% to 50% of mines that are no longer viable.  That is in the public interest.  That is a necessity for the mining industry.
To protect the public and communities in the sacrifice zone of potential catastrophe’s that cleansing has to be planned and orderly. The permitting jurisdictions who abetted these mines into existence need to share some of the financial risk and responsibility for this essential cleansing.  It cant just be a big shuffle of public risk to less and less competent, less and less well financed  or less reputable mine operators.


[1] Supercycle refers to a multi-year period of sustained price increases in commodities and raw materials.

[2] We define “Very Serious” TSF failures as those involving a release of 1 million cubic meters or more

3 The all-time annual average high since 1896 was 1916 at $13,572 ($2015) followed by 1917 at $11,876

[3] The “mining metric” is higher mine production necessitated by lower grades of ore, a century of declining prices offset by declining costs per ton. The metric is to continuously develop the resource through economies of scale, larger and deeper footprints, more efficient operations, bigger and better bulk mining technology.

[4] We define “Serious” TSF failures as those with a release of greater than 100,000 m3, but less than 1 million m3.




About lindsaynewlandbowker

Bowker Associates, Science & Research In The Public Interest, is an independent non profit providing self initiated pro bono analysis on key issues with a potential for massive adverse environmental impact . Bowker Associates has been an internationally recognized and cited voice in analysis of the Samarco failure, its consequence, and the possibilties for recovery. In 2017 we partnered with Daveid M. Chambers, a world leader in responsible mining, in our third joint work on the economics of tailings failures. Bowker, L.N.; Chambers, D.M. In the Dark Shadow of the Supercycle Tailings Failure Risk & Public Liability Reach All Time Highs. Environments 2017, 4, 75. A peer reviewed journal published investigation of the cowboy economics of the supercycle and the resulting escalation on the number and magnitude of catastrophic failures. In 2016 we parnered with Dave Chambers in our 2nd joint work together looking at root causes of failures at a conference . Bowker, L.N.; Chambers, D.M. Root Causes of Tailings Management Failures: The Severity of Consequence of Failures Attributed to Overtopping 1915–2015. In Proceedings of the Protections 2016, Fort Collins, CO, USA, 14 June 2016. [Google Scholar] In 2015 Bowker Associates collaborated with geophysicist David M. Chambers to recompile global authoritative accounts of significant TSF failures in recorded history and to analyze these data in the context of global mining economics 1910-2010 ( Risk, Economics and Public Liability of TSF Failures, Bowker/Chambers July 2015) The third annual update of this globally referenced and used compilation was just released at Researchgate. ( In 2014 Bowker Associates commissioned globally respected geophysicist and hydrogeologist Dr. David Chambers to undertake two technical works: (1) development of technical go no go criteria for vetting mine applications tp:// and (2) a case study of Maine's Bald Mountain, an un mined low grade high risk VMS deposit demonstrating the efficacy and accuracy of two risk assessment tools in vetting mine proposals In Maine, Bowker Associates has deeply engaged and been a public voice in the Searsport DCP LPG Tank, The Cianbro proposal for a Private East West Toll Road, JD Irvings rolling pipeline of Bakken crude to its plant in St. John and review of Phase II plans at The Callahan Superfund site in Brooksville, Maine, and Maine's revisitation of mining in statute and regulation... Our only “client”: is always “the pubic interest”. Our model is to focus on only one or two issues at a time so that we have a substantive command of the relevant field as our foundation for ongoing engagement. Our core work is in envirommental risk management, science and technology as well as bringing any available “best practices” models to the fore. The legal and regulatory history/best models are also a major thrust of our work in building and evaluating public policy. Director/Principal Lindsay Newland Bowker, CPCU, ARM is a recognized expert in Environmental Risk Management., Heavy Construction Risk Management and Marine and Transit Risks and has more than 3 decades of engagement in buiding public policy. Appointed by Governor Mario Cuomo to New York State Banking Board (served 1986-1996); President New York Chapter Chartered Property and Casualty Insurers; Environmental Committee, Risk and Insurance Management Society; Director, Convenor/Co-Chair Bermuda Market Briefing "From Captive to Cats" Hamilton Bermuda. Published Articles of Significance The Risk Economics and Public Liability of Tailings Facility Failures, co-authored with David M. Chambers, July 2015 Beyond. Polarization: Superfund Reform in Perspective, Risk & Insurance Managing Risk For Loss Prevention & Cost Control (Jan. 24, 1997). Lead Hazards and Abatement Technologies in Construction: A Risk Management Approach CPCU Journal 1997 Employee Leasing: Liability in Limbo Risk Management June 1 1997 Environmental Audit Privilege and the Public interest Risk & Insurance Managing Risk For Loss Prevention & Cost Control, April 1997 Asbestos:Holes In Abatement Policies Need To Be Plugged, Lloyd’s Environmental Risk International, May 1993 Editor Published Letters Evironmental Risk Management Beware of Facile Policies Like Fetal Protection Business Insurance 1995(?) High Court Review May Increase Sale of Bank Annuities Business Insurances August 8, 1995 Professional Profiles Protecting the Big Apple’s Core Managing Risk For Loss Prevention & Control December 1996 Major Career Highlights First rigorous analysis showing Relationship Between declining ore grades and TSF Failures of increasing consequence ( July 2015) FIrst Documentation that Gentrification Has Same Impacts as Unassisted Displacement from Urban Renewal Sites Direted Court Ordered EIS of FHA Mortgage Scandal Created Nation's First Homeownership Program for Low Income People (SHIP) Created Earliest Geographic Information Systems Using Defense Technology Developed By IBM Designed and Conducted Parallel Census Count to Show Systematic undercount in minority neighborhoods Documented Bias in ISO Territory Rating Plans for Private Passenger Auto Insurance Using ISO's own Rating Techniques Demonstrated Inherent Bias in Mortgage Policies of Banks With Inner City Branches Demonstrated that NY Telephones Plan for Area Code Split To accommodate anticipated cell phone demand was not efficient and would exhaust in 5 years ( which it did) Undertook First Systematic Evaluation of Child Protective Services Caseload Using Multi Variate Analyic Techniques Developed Child Protective Caseload Management and Tracking System (CANTS) and directed implementation in 4 client states including Illinois, Florida and New York Created and Ran Office of Risk Management for NYC DEP the Nations largest Water & Sewer Authority . Designed, Created and Administered Nation's First Owner Controlled Insurance Program (OCIP)for High Risk Tunneling Education Masters NYU Graduate School of Public Administration BSC New School For Social Research Maine Public Schools Deering High School
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