Safer tailings storage facilities (TSFs) – or tailings dams – can be achieved when mine owners, contractors and engineering consultants work closely together, according to SRK Consulting senior geotechnical engineer Linda Spies.
Speaking after a recent Southern African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (SAIMM) conference focusing on tailings dams, Spies said that mining executives today required more assurance that their tailings dams are safe, with controls becoming much stricter. Greater transparency was also being demanded by other stakeholders such as investors and communities.
“After several hundred lives were lost in two well-publicised tailings dam failures in Brazil in 2015 and 2019, awareness of tailings dam risks has been raised within the mining industry and in the public eye globally,” she said. “These latest failures were especially significant insofar as senior management at the mining companies were for the first time being implicated directly with charges of manslaughter and environmental damage.”
She noted that while conferences on this topic usually involved mainly tailings dam practitioners and academics, this event had strong representation from owners, contractors, who are responsible for tailings dam construction, and consultants, who design TSFs and monitor their construction.
“This meant that the discussion was more holistic and valuable, enriched with insights from these various perspectives,” she said. “This is vital in promoting innovation, safety and environmental and social responsibility in the design, operation and closure of tailings dams.”
While the tone of the event was serious in light of recent failures, there was also an optimism flowing from the showcasing of best practice in the field and how this was being successfully applied. In her own case study presentation on a lined tailings dam at a South African platinum mine, Spies highlighted the complexities introduced by the liner requirement – and how good drainage design and quality assurance were an important part of the solution. [see sidebar below]
Among the key issues discussed at the conference was whether upstream tailings dams should be allowed – as this was one of the commonalities in the recent Brazilian failures. High-level input was given in a panel discussion by senior leaders from a mining company, a law firm and an insurance firm, including technical opinions from tailings industry expert and specialist geotechnical engineer Adriaan Meintjes, a partner and corporate consultant from SRK.
According to SRK principal hydrogeologist and numerical modeller Sheila Imrie, who also presented at the event, tailings is rightly receiving considerable attention from a combined engineering and scientific perspective and will continue to do so in the future.
“The continued application of the latest technologies by the industry’s top experts is critical,” said Imrie. “Industry must also ensure that sufficiently detailed research, monitoring and numerical modelling informs the future design and current management of tailings dams.”
She presented a paper on ‘3D Seepage Modelling in Tailings Storage Facility Analysis and Design for Low Permeability Lined Basins’ with SRK colleague civil engineer Wesley Rouncivell. A key to the safe operation of tailings dams into the future involves comprehensive and rigorous monitoring of these facilities on a regular and real-time basis.
In another SRK presentation, GIS specialist Ansu Louw and civil engineer Riaan van der Colf gave their insights on a ‘GIS-enabled, Web-based TSF Monitoring Solution’ by SRK to enhance monitoring of tailings facilities.
Getting lined tailings storage facilities right
The inclusion of a liner in a tailings dam brings many environmental benefits, but also increased complexity in design, construction and operation, said SRK Consulting senior geotechnical engineer Linda Spies.
In her presentation – ‘Design of an HDPE-lined platinum tailings facility in South Africa’ – at the SAIMM Tailings Storage Conference in Gauteng recently, Spies highlighted the importance of well-designed drainage systems. These are vital to drawing down the phreatic surface, reducing the seepage gradient and minimising the liquefaction potential of tailings.
She also emphasised high construction standards to ensure that tailings dams successfully limit seepage, and outlined a series of quality control and assurance measures.