Case Studies of Tailings Dam Failures: Lessons Learned and Path Forward

Tailings dams, essential for the management of mining waste, have unfortunately been marred by a series of catastrophic failures throughout history. These incidents have led to devastating consequences, including loss of lives, significant environmental harm, and destruction of infrastructure. Notably, the failure rate associated with tailings dams is much higher than conventional water dams, mainly due to their construction method. Tailings dams are often raised progressively, which introduces unique risks and challenges.  


Case Studies: Tailings dams' failure 

El Cobre Tailings Dam (Chile): Triggered by seismic activity, this dam's failure resulted in significant fatalities and environmental damage. The incident catalyzed the tailings management community to develop improved practices for constructing and maintaining stable tailings dams in seismically active regions. 


Brumadinho Tailings Dam (Brazil): The failure here, caused by foundation failure and liquefaction, led to a tragic loss of life and extensive environmental devastation. This disaster prompted the introduction of the Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management (GISTM), aiming to elevate tailings management practices worldwide. 


Read more: Environmental Impacts of Tailings Dams: From Contamination to Conservation


Lessons Learned 

The recurring themes in the aftermath of tailings dam failures underscore the critical importance of addressing design flaws, enhancing monitoring efforts, and ensuring emergency response plans. These elements are vital in preempting potential failures and mitigating their impacts. Moreover, the stark contrast in failure rates between tailings and water dams highlights the need for a specialized focus on tailings dams' unique risks. 

Case Studies of Tailings Dam Failures: Lessons Learned and Path Forward 


Innovations and Improvements in Tailings Management 


Advancements in technology and methodology are transforming tailings management practices. This includes: 

  • Whole-of-Life Approach: Adopting a comprehensive perspective on tailings management, which extends beyond financial considerations to encompass the entire lifecycle of tailings facilities. 
  • Advanced Geotechnical Monitoring: The implementation of advanced technologies, such as real-time geotechnical monitoring instrumentation like piezometers, strain gage, extensometers, tiltmeter, etc.  
    LiDAR offers precise 3D mapping capabilities, capturing detailed terrain models to evaluate dam geometry and potential erosion sites. Similarly, InSAR  provides  insights into minute ground deformations, flagging early warning signs of instability that could precede dam failures. Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) complements these by visualizing the subsurface conditions, detecting anomalies that could affect dam integrity. 

Optical fiber technologies have emerged as critical tools for monitoring temperature changes, strain, and movement within the dam structure, offering a comprehensive view of the dam’s internal conditions. Additionally, GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System) technology ensures high-precision positioning and monitoring, vital for detecting even the slightest movements that could indicate a potential risk of failure. Together, these technologies enable a multi-faceted approach to monitoring, ensuring that data on every aspect of the dam's condition is available in real time, allowing for timely interventions and decision-making. 

  • By integrating versatile data sets from diverse monitoring technologies, Proqio facilitates a holistic understanding of dam health and stability. Stakeholders can build dashboards for different projects and sites with simplicity, which mitigates data fragmentation and enhances decision-making processes. Operators, engineers, owners and project managers can access data insights, from surface deformations detected by InSAR to subsurface anomalies identified by GPR and the structural integrity insights provided by optical fiber sensors. Advanced analytics and flexible visualization tools enable the identification of patterns and trends that might not be visible through isolated data sets, supporting informed decision-making and proactive management strategies. Also, the automated reporting feature, custom alarms and early warning help bypass any disasters or anomalies.  
  • Regulatory Evolution: The development of standards such as GISTM reflects a paradigm shift in regulatory frameworks, aiming to improve safety and sustainability in tailings management. 


Read more: Understanding Geo-Hazard Risks in Tailings Storage Facilities: A Detailed Analysis


Future Directions: Technology and Collaboration 

The history of tailings dam failures serves as a somber reminder of the consequences of inadequate attention to design, monitoring, and emergency preparedness. By leveraging lessons learned, embracing technological advancements, and fostering collaborative networks, we can aspire to a future where tailings dam failures are a rarity rather than a recurring tragedy. 
The path forward emphasizes the adoption of emerging technologies and collaborative efforts to prevent future failures. Pore pressure monitoring, airborne ground-penetrating radar (GPR), and the bow-tie failure analysis model offer promising avenues for early risk detection and intervention. Furthermore, global collaboration and knowledge sharing among stakeholders can drive continuous improvement and innovation in tailings management practices.