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Changing Times The Challenges and

Risks of Managing Aging Infrastructure

Under a New Financial Reality

33rd Annual USSD Conference

Phoenix, Arizona, February 11-15, 2013

Co-Hosted by
Bureau of Reclamation and Salt River Project

On the Cover
The original Theodore Roosevelt Dam was completed in 1911, the first major structure built by the Bureau of
Reclamation on the Salt River Project. The dam, located about 75 miles northeast of Phoenix, had an original height
of 280 feet, and was highest masonry dam in the world. In 1996, a project to expand and renovate the dam was
completed. This project raised the dam by 77 feet for a total height of 357 feet and resulting in a 20 percent increase
in reservoir capacity. The expansion of the dam was accomplished using a concrete overlay. The cost of the
expansion totaled $430 million and included the realignment of a highway over a new bridge, improvements to the
power plant and a tunneled lake tap.

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Jos L.M. Clemente1
Robert E. Snow2
Carmen Bernedo3
Clinton L. Strachan4
Andy Fourie5
The USSD Tailings Dams Committee organized a workshop in August 2011 that
included 2 days of presentations and discussions on the topic of dam break analysis
applied to tailings dams and possible applications to other slurried waste impoundments.
The workshop presentations covered the following main topics: (1) regulatory aspects of
dam break analysis applied to tailings dams, (2) predictive models and available software,
(3) failure modes, and (4) tailings flow modeling after a potential dam break. A survey
was developed and distributed to state and federal dam safety officials to seek feedback
on regulatory aspects of dam break analysis applied to tailings dams. This manuscript
provides a workshop summary that can be seen as the framework for a state-of-practice
document. The purpose(s) of break analysis, methods used, and documentation of
important assumptions are addressed. Commentary citing concerns raised during and
after the workshop are also included as it was clear that our ability to conduct accurate
and realistic dam break analyses is limited. This manuscript also attempts to outline
directions for the focus of future research and development projects with the goal of
establishing more realistic methods for tailings dam break analysis.
The USSD Tailings Dams Committee organized a workshop on tailings dam break
analysis in Denver, Colorado, on August 24-26, 2011. Twenty-six speakers and 80
registered participants from the United States, Canada, Australia, Sweden, and Panama,
including engineers, owners and operators, regulators, researchers/academicians, and
subject matter experts participated in the workshop. The 2-day technical program focused
on (1) regulatory aspects of dam break analysis applied to tailings dams, (2) predictive
models and available software, (3) failure modes, and (4) tailings flow modeling after
dam breaks. The committee developed a survey to obtain information on the current
practice and regulatory concerns regarding tailings dam break analysis. This survey was

Chief Engineer, Geotechnical & Hydraulic Engineering Services, Bechtel Power Corporation, Frederick,
Principal, DAppolonia Engineering, Monroeville, PA, USA,
Lead/Supervising Engineer, MWH Global, Inc., Denver, CO, USA,
Principal Geotechnical Engineer, MWH Americas, Inc., Fort Collins, CO, USA,
Professor, School of Civil and Resource Engineering, University of Western Australia, Perth, WA,

Dam Break Analysis Applied to Tailings Dams


implemented with assistance from the Association of State Dam Safety Officials
(ASDSO) and received responses from 39 states. The results of this survey were
presented and discussed at the workshop. Additionally, numerous case histories were
While the focus of the workshop was on tailings dams, the topics covered in the
workshop would be applicable to other slurried waste impoundments, such as ash
disposal ponds.
The purpose of this manuscript is to (1) summarize and/or reference selected
presentations made at the workshop, capture some of the discussions held during the
workshop, and follow up on comments, (2) provide a framework for a state-of-practice
document, and (3) outline directions for the focus of future research and development
projects with the goal of establishing more realistic methods for tailings dam break
Sections of this manuscript are organized to reflect the workshop agenda for the technical
sessions. No workshop proceedings were generated, but hardcopies of the presentations
were distributed to all workshop attendees, and they were uploaded to the InfoMine site.
Hyperlinks to the InfoMine site for presentations cited in the text of this manuscript are
shown in the list of references.
A survey on tailings dams and break analysis was prepared to solicit regulatory input on
agency responsibilities and experience, approach and methodologies, applied software,
parameter selection, and concerns with analyses being conducted. ASDSO assisted with
survey development and distribution, including the request that each member state
agency responsible for regulating dam safety complete the survey. ASDSO also compiled
the results of the survey, and Robert K. Martinez, P.E., who is the Nevada State
representative to and a past president (2008-2009) of ASDSO, presented results at the
workshop (Martinez 2011). Thirty-nine state programs participated in the survey.
The survey was also submitted to the Department of Labors Mine Safety and Health
Administration (MSHA), the federal agency with jurisdiction over all dams associated
with mining operations. MSHA conducts technical reviews and approves plans for coal
refuse disposal impoundment designs, inspects coal and metal and non-metal mine
impoundments, and investigates concerns about dam safety. Eleven personnel responsible
for review of design plans and/or inspection of impoundments responded to the survey.
Dam safety programs adopted by the states generally apply to both water impounding
dams and tailings dams and consist of the following components:

Legislation and regulation

Permitting and approval of plans and specifications
Experienced and professional staff


Managing Aging Infrastructure

Inspections construction and annual

Emergency response
Emergency action plans (EAPs)

Among the differences in state programs are the strength of regulations and statutes and
funding, number, and experience of staff. Based on the survey of respondents, four states
do not regulate tailings dams relative to dam safety. Several states have other agencies, in
addition to the dam safety agency, that have some role or responsibility for regulating
tailings dams. Dam safety agency staff range from 0 to 59 personnel, with an average of 9
for regulating dams of all types, including tailings dams. Considering the number of
dams, this equates to one full-time staff member for every 145 dams. High-hazard
potential dams are inspected by state agency personnel on average every 1.5 years
although many tailings dams in the western United States are not classified as high
hazard. Approximately half of the 13,990 state-regulated high-hazard potential dams have
Dams that are covered under state regulatory programs that contain requirements for
design and construction, including break analysis, are those that meet or exceed a
threshold with respect to potential hazard or size in terms of height, impoundment
volume, or a combination of the two. Dam height and volume generally reflects
impounding capacity, both water and tailings. Dams that pose high-hazard potential,
where failure would threaten downstream public safety and likely result in loss of life, are
typically subject to regulation regardless of height or volume. High-hazard height criteria
typically range between 5 and 35 feet, with most typically 20 or 25 feet. Volume criteria
typically range between 10 and 100 acre-feet, with most typically 50 acre-feet. Many
states cite a combination of height and volume, such as 20 feet in height and 20 acre-feet.
Other threshold criteria include watershed area, such as 100 acres.
In MSHAs regulatory program, the mine operator declares a dams hazard potential
classification, and MSHA investigates to ensure the classification is appropriate. Dam
break analysis may be required to support a classification as low or significant hazard
potential. The threshold for coal mine dams that require a design plan include those that
exceed 20 feet in height, those that exceed 5 feet in height and 20 acre-feet in volume, or
those that are determined a potential hazard. MSHA regulates tailings dams as well as
freshwater dams on mine sites. Since MSHA relies on the states to require an EAP with
associated inundation mapping, MSHA does not use the break analysis results for this
The types of tailings dams regulated by state and federal agencies include the following
according to the survey: metal mine, coal refuse and coal combustion residuals,
phosphate, silica, and sand and gravel. Other tailings dams that were identified as being
regulated by respondents included kaolin and vermiculite, barite, and potash and brine. A
few state respondents indicated that there are no tailings dams within their jurisdiction
although such structures would be regulated if present.

Dam Break Analysis Applied to Tailings Dams


Dam break analyses are required under approximately two-thirds of the state programs
and are conducted due to regulatory requirements to establish hazard potential rating,
determine inundation mapping, or evaluate abandonment or reclamation procedures
where the impoundment will be permanent. About two-thirds of state respondents that
require dam break analysis indicate that they are personally involved with the analysis.
However, the state programs encounter tailings dam break analyses infrequently because
83 percent of such respondents (dam safety programs) conduct or review break analysis
of tailings dams one or less times per year. The remaining respondents indicated they
may conduct or review between two and six tailings dam break analyses per year. MSHA
respondents indicated that they review one or less break analysis per year.
State personnel typically rely on internal guidance for dams in performing break analysis,
or they consider case-by-case information. MSHA relies predominantly on its
Engineering and Design Manual for coal refuse disposal facilities for guidance. Most
state and MSHA respondents consider overtopping and internal erosion failure modes for
the analyses, with some giving consideration to other failure modes, including foundation
or slope instability, seismic instability, and breakthrough into underground mines. Most
respondents conduct break analysis under sunny day conditions with normal pool (state
respondents 71 percent, MSHA respondents 100 percent), with some respondents also
considering tailings dam pool at minimum crest level (state respondents 41percent,
MSHA respondents 66 percent) or pool at 100-year frequency storm elevation (state
respondents 24 percent, MSHA respondents 0 percent). Most state respondents also
consider break analysis with probable maximum flood (PMF) conditions (state
respondents 59 percent), while it appears that MSHA respondents encounter analysis
under PMF conditions less frequently. Break analyses are sometimes conducted for
intermediate stages during site development (about 40 percent) by some respondents and
for the final stage or maximum height by all respondents (100 percent).
A variety of conditions are considered by respondents regarding tailings release. Many
assume all tailings are released from the impoundment to the level of the break (state
respondents 44 percent, MSHA respondents 91percent), while a lower number of
respondents assume that just water is released with no tailings (state respondents
31percent, MSHA respondents 20 percent). Three respondents reported considering the
tailings characteristics in determining the quantity released. One respondent indicated use
of a tailings bulking factor in modeling the release.
Most break analyses rely on published guidance for break parameters (e.g., Federal
Energy Regulatory Commission Engineering Guidelines, MSHA Engineering and Design
Manual), while seven respondents indicated some consideration of break predictor
equations (e.g., Froehlich Equation). The majority of break analysis and downstream
flood routing is performed using HEC-RAS or HEC-1, while eight respondents use
DAMBRK, and one respondent uses FLO-2D. A summary of predictive models and
available software is presented in the next section.
The concerns respondents reported with break analysis of tailings dams is
overwhelmingly associated with break assumptions (state respondents 86 percent, MSHA


Managing Aging Infrastructure

respondents 90 percent). Other significant concerns relate to hydraulic routing and initial
conditions. A number of respondents indicated a need for additional guidance on the
generally accepted methodology for tailings dam break analysis, specifically tailings
release and flow downstream and breaks of tailings ponds in flat terrain, to help clarify
hazard potential classification and possible environmental damage. Additionally,
guidance is sought for determining downstream inundation conditions that constitute a
potential loss of life.
This section is largely based on Bernedo (2011) and also references other presentations
made at the workshop. Dam break flood wave analysis is a classic problem of unsteady
open-channel flow, which has been of theoretical interest to hydraulic engineers for well
over a century. Mathematical models have been and continue to be developed to meet
this need. Model development is still in a process of continual evolution, with updated
expanded versions of the models being released periodically.
The two modeling tasks of computing the reservoir outflow hydrograph and routing the
hydrograph through the downstream valley can be considered separately but must be
interconnected to reflect backwater effects on tailwater conditions. A model must include
some mechanism for representing the flow of water/tailings from the breached dam.
There are several dam break flood wave analysis models available that are typically used
in the engineering industry with different capabilities and different levels of modeling
complexity. For example, some models simulate both the dam break and the flood wave
routing, while others may do one or the other. Some models produce the complete output
hydrograph, while others may only output the estimated peak flow rate. Some models can
simulate two- or three-dimensional flow while some only consider one-dimensional flow.
Finally, while most models are capable of modeling Newtonian flow (clear fluids or low
concentrations of suspended solids), only some are able to simulate non-Newtonian flow
(such as high concentration viscous flow). The user must choose a model required to
perform the simulation based on the specific problem to be modeled and the input
information available. Figure 1 shows a summary of some of the available dam break and
flood wave routing models broken down by their capability to model Newtonian or nonNewtonian fluid flows (models with non-Newtonian flow simulation capabilities can also
simulate Newtonian fluid flow).

Dam Break Analysis Applied to Tailings Dams


Figure 1. Dam Break and Flood Wave Routing Models for Newtonian vs. NonNewtonian Fluids
Non-Newtonian Flows
The equations used in hydraulic modeling software often assume that the fluid being
modeled is Newtonian in order to allow for an analytical solution to a given fluid
mechanics problem. In a Newtonian fluid, the shearing stress ( is linearly related to the

shearing strain rate , and the relationship between and

is proportional to the

fluid viscosity , as shown in Equation 1:

(Equation 1)

In a non-Newtonian fluid, the shearing stress is not linearly related to the shearing strain
rate as shown in Figure 2.
In hydraulic models where the fluid is Newtonian (water, gasoline, etc.) or the fluid is
non-Newtonian and the accuracy of the solution will not be compromised by the
Newtonian assumption, it is generally acceptable to use modeling software that uses the
Newtonian assumption. However, when modeling non-Newtonian fluids in situations
where the accuracy of the solution will be compromised by using the Newtonian fluid
assumption, modeling software with the capability to approximate non-Newtonian
behavior should be used.


Managing Aging Infrastructure

Figure 2. Nonlinear Relationship between Shearing Stress and Shearing Strain Rate in
Non-Newtonian Fluids (adapted from Munson et al. 2009)
Available Models/Software
Most of these models use the break characteristics of the simulated failure as input. These
break characteristics can be predicted in three ways: (1) comparing the dam failure to past
similar failures, (2) using specific equations based on past dam failures to find a new
break width and development time, and (3) using a model that simulates the break
characteristic parameters. Fourie (2011) addresses the importance of providing realistic
data for calibration of dam break models.
An overview of software-implementing models typically used for dam break analysis and
routing for tailings dams follows. Each of the models presented has advantages and
disadvantages based on the specific case to be modeled and the available input
information. The objective of this overview is not to recommend one model over another
but to give a summary of the capabilities, complexities, and limitations of the available
models for a given tailings dam break analysis. Further information about these software
packages can be obtained from their vendors.
DAMBRK was developed by the National Weather Service (NWS) (Fread 1984). It
predicts the dam break wave formation and downstream progression. The model consists
of three functional parts: (1) description of the dam failure mode, including the temporal
and geometric description of the break, (2) computation of the outflow hydrograph
through the break, and (3) routing of the outflow hydrograph through a downstream
channel. In computing the peak outflow and the outflow hydrograph from the break, the
program utilizes user inputs describing the geometric and temporal patterns of the
reservoir and the break. Selection of these parameters before a break forms or in the
absence of observations can introduce some uncertainty in the prediction, but allows the
user to study the sensitivity of the parameters and simulate different possible scenarios.
After computing the outflow hydrograph, the program uses a dynamic wave method to
Dam Break Analysis Applied to Tailings Dams


route the flood wave in the downstream channel or valley. BOSS DAMBRK is an
enhanced version of the NWS DAMBRK model. While commonly used to simulate
Newtonian (clear water) flows, DAMBRK and BOSS DAMBRK can also simulate
routing of non-Newtonian fluids, such as tailings, by specifying rheology of the fluid
such as its unit weight, dynamic viscosity, initial shear strength, and stress rate of strain.
Use of DAMBRK to model tailings dam breaks is reported by Browne (2011).
FLO-2D was created by James S. OBrien for the Federal Emergency Management
Agency in 1989, and it is discussed by OBrien et al. (1993). The model predicts flood
hazards, mudflows, and debris flows over alluvial fans using three different systems. A
uniform grid is used to describe the floodplain topography so the model can simulate
interactive flood or mudflow routing between the channel, street, and floodplain flow.
Both clear water and sediment flow flooding conditions are modeled using a quadratic
rheological model. The overall model is based on a grid system. Each sector in the grid is
given a location, an elevation, a roughness factor, and flow reduction factors by the user.
Once these values are placed in the grid, flow is routed through it. Discharge is predicted
using an estimated depth of flow for each sector, which is then computed and summed
across all four boundaries of the flood plain. When FLO-2D models mudflow, it takes
into account the sediment volume for each sector of the grid, so sediment continuity
remains intact. The model is limited by its inability to simulate abrupt changes in the flow
profile like shock waves or hydraulic jumps and degradation. The model assumes that
flow during the time step is steady, with hydrostatic pressure distributions, fairly uniform
cross-section shape and roughness, and single input values for each grid sector. The
accuracy of the prediction is governed by the grid density. Use of FLO-2D to model dam
breaks is reported by Breitkreutz (2011).
DAN3D is a model used to predict the run-out analysis of extremely high velocity
landslides, including rock and debris avalanches. The model is an extension of DAN, a
one-dimensional software that relies on a meshless, Lagrangian model that takes into
account variability in the flow path. It allows the use of non-Newtonian flow, so tailings
can be modeled properly. DAN3D is based on a two-dimensional Lagrangian solution of
unsteady flow over three-dimensional surfaces. Like DAN, it has the ability to interpolate
so that the entire surface can be modeled, and in this case, the environment is smoothed
in three dimensions. The model solves depth-averaged equations for an equivalent flow,
which results from simple rheological relationships that are acquired through back
calculations of real landslide analysis. DAN3D has the following key features: (1)
simulation of flow over complex three-dimensional terrain without the need to input
predictive flow path or outcomes, (2) prediction of internal stresses resulting from threedimensional deformation of material with internal shear stresses taking into account
strain, anisotropic, and non-hydrostatic conditions, (3) prediction of the transfer of mass
and momentum by taking into account entrainment of path material, and (4) ease of use.
The overall output of the model is a prediction of the impacted area from a rapid slide
event. The model is limited based on the resolution of the floodplain. It has been reported
that DAN3D did well in back calculating case studies because all data were known, and
the results were calibrated to assist the model.


Managing Aging Infrastructure

FLDWAV is a computer model developed by the NWS to model flows through a single
stream or network of streams (Fread and Lewis 1988, Fread 1993, Fread 2000). The
FLDWAV program is an upgrade of DAMBRK. The purpose of DAMBRK is to
determine the affected area from a dam break by analyzing the flow. FLDWAV was
designed to analyze large flood events from more than just dam breaks by using a realtime forecasting predictive model. This model has five main capabilities: (1) to model
single or multiple channel flow for straight or meandering channels, (2) to model free
surface flows in subcritical, supercritical, and mixed flow regimes as well as conduit flow
under pressure, (3) to model clear water fluids and mud/debris fluid flows, (4) to model
off-channel flow areas that may take flow storage during high flows, (5) to model timedependent dam breaks or control structures along with flow over and through multiple
control structures. The system is based on the one-dimensional solution to the SaintVenant equations for unsteady flow. It also allows the user to model one-dimensional
unsteady non-Newtonian fluids. Use of FLDWAV to model tailings dam breaks is
reported by Kunkel (2011b).
HEC-RAS allows for the modeling of a dam break failure though it does not model nonNewtonian fluids. This model allows unsteady one-dimensional flow routing using all of
the St. Venant equations and is often used to compute and display downstream impacts
resulting from hypothetical dam failures. Given input parameters such as ultimate breach
geometry and time to breach, HEC-RAS can generate the dam breach hydrograph then
simulate the resultant flood wave and downstream consequences. HEC-RAS has been
used for many flood damage analysis and dam safety studies. Routing simulations require
the following from the break model to work in HEC-RAS: location, failure mode, shape
and progression, formation time, trigger condition, and weir and pipe flow coefficients.
HEC-RAS also provides a time-growth template for breaks. Use of HEC-RAS to model
dam breaks, including tailings dams, is reported by Browne (2011) and Breitkreutz
MIKE21 is an extension of the Danish Hydraulic Institute (DHI) MIKE flood modeling
system and has been improved to be able to model flood wave propagation from
theoretical dam break scenarios. The goal of the model improvement is to increase the
power of the model by allowing it to handle high Froude numbers so it can accurately
model wave propagation over initially dry beds. The improvements also allow the
software to perform supercritical flows, broad-crested weir flows, and hydraulic jumps in
addition to dam break models. The MIKE21 model is a two-dimensional flood
propagation software (another DHI product, MIKE11, is one-dimensional flood
propagation software). The software is based on numerical solutions to depth-averaged
equations that describe the conservation of mass and momentum in two dimensions.
Caution is recommended in simulations with steeply rising flood depths. Like HEC-RAS
and SMPDBK, MIKE21 (and MIKE11) can only analyze Newtonian flows. However, a
mud transport (MT) module would seem to be appropriate for modeling highconcentration sediment-laden flows. The MT module is used in a variety of cases where
the erosion, dispersion, and deposition of cohesive sediments are of interest. Use of
MIKE11 and MIKE21 to model tailings dam breaks is reported by Hegedus (2011) and
Soderstrom and Isaksson (2011).

Dam Break Analysis Applied to Tailings Dams


SMPDBK from the NWS is a simplified version of the original model, DAMBRK. This
model is a very useful tool because it does not require much input information, it is easy
and quick to use, and it returns results on the conservatively high side for large dams.
Caution must be exercised in applying the model in cases where the dam impounds a
small reservoir (under about 500,000 square meters) and for irregular, extremely large
dams. In these situations, the peak flow values have been reported to be much smaller
than those obtained by the normal DAMBRK model. The SMPDBK model assumes the
initial break to be rectangular and constant, a constant reservoir surface area, and peak
flow time that is equal to the break development time. The model is not able to reproduce
backwater. Use of SMPBRK to model tailings dam breaks is reported by Browne (2011).
This section is largely based on Strachan (2011) and it also references other presentations
made at the workshop. It presents a summary of failure modes for tailings dams based on
data review of reported incidents. The results from this review are used with the dam
break analyses discussed elsewhere in this document. This section focuses on tailings
dams or the embankment or component of the overall tailings impoundment or tailingsstorage facility that provides containment for tailings and associated process water or
meteoric water. This section also refers to tailings dam incidents, which include events
ranging from complete dam failure, to release of tailings or water of varying amounts, to
minor events where performance was not consistent with design. Kulesza (2011) presents
a summary of previously published papers dealing with failure modes applied to tailings
The International Commission on Large Dams (ICOLD) and its US member, the US
Society on Dams (formerly the US Committee on Large Dams or USCOLD), have
actively documented design issues and performance of water-storage dams and tailings
dams. ICOLD has published the World Register of Dams as well as guidelines on dam
design, construction, and monitoring (ICOLD 1987). The Tailings Dam Committee of
ICOLD has published several guidelines on tailings dams, based on experience with
tailings dam performance (ICOLD 1982, 1989a, 1989b).
USCOLD published two reviews of water-storage dam incidents (USCOLD 1976 and
1988). From the updated review published in 1988, more than 500 water-storage dam
incidents were tabulated. These documents also outline the terms for classification of
incidents (ranging from failures with complete abandonment of the dam to varying levels
of accidents with repairs to the dam or outlet works). Incident causes were grouped into
categories (overtopping, slope stability, earthquake, foundation, seepage, structural,
erosion, or subsidence). Because the total number of water-storage dams in operation was
fairly well known, some statistical conclusions could be made from the incident review.
A graphical summary of the data from USCOLD (1988) is presented in Figure 3. This
graph shows that major failures were due to overtopping and erosion, and major repairs
were associated with spillway and outlet works.


Managing Aging Infrastructure

Figure 3. Incident Comparison for Water-Storage Dams (adapted from USCOLD 1988)
Tailings Dam Incident Survey
The USCOLD Tailings Dam Committee (under Chair Steve Vick) conducted a survey of
tailings dam incidents in 1989, with the results published by USCOLD in 1994
(USCOLD 1994). The results of this survey are presented in a format similar to the
USCOLD water-storage dam review. The USCOLD review identified 185 worldwide
tailings dam incidents from 1917 through 1989 from publications, questionnaires, and
anecdotal information. Impounding structures not related to mill tailings (such as coal
refuse structures, ash dams, or industrial waste lagoons) were not included in the review.
In 1996, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) published a survey of
tailings dam incidents conducted by Mining Journal Research Services from 1980 to
1996 (UNEP 1996). This survey includes some of the incidents in USCOLD (1994) as
well as incidents that occurred after 1989. UNEP (1996) identified 26 incidents that were
independent of the 185 incidents identified in USCOLD (1994).
In 2001, the ICOLD Committee on Tailings Dams and Waste Lagoons published a
tailings dam incident survey incorporating the incident database from USCOLD and
UNEP (ICOLD 2001), resulting in a database of 221 incidents with varying levels of
detail. This database is discussed in Strachan (2002). There are other tailings dam
incident reviews that are independent of the USCOLD and ICOLD reviews discussed
above. These include Martin and Davies (2000), Szymanski (1999), Cambridge (2001),
and Rico et al. (2007). However, the tailings dam incidents discussed in this section are
based on the data compiled in ICOLD (2001).
Dam Break Analysis Applied to Tailings Dams


Discussion of Incident Data

The incident data compiled in ICOLD (2001) is useful for evaluating tailings dam
performance and modes of failure if the sources and limitations of the data are
understood. The documented tailings dam incidents in the dataset are a subset of the total
number of incidents that have occurred. The reported incidents in recent years probably
comprise nearly all actual incidents due to low likelihood of unreported incidents. The
percentage of reported incidents is likely to be lower earlier in the 20th century due to less
thorough reporting. Detail in types of dams, incident causes, and other distinguishing
information is highly variable. Selected data are illustrated in the following graphs, and
general conclusions are made considering limitations of the data.
The historical record of incidents is shown in Figure 4, with incidents presented in 5-year
increments. The increase in number of incidents after 1960 is most likely based on two
factors: (1) the larger number of tailings dams constructed and operated after 1960 and
(2) more thorough reporting of incidents later in the 20th century.

Figure 4. Historical Record of Incidents (adapted from ICOLD 2001)

The number of incidents versus dam height is shown in Figure 5, with incidents presented
in 10-meter height increments. The incidents are also separated into failures and
accidents. The data are limited to dams where the dam height was known. The larger
number of incidents for dam heights below 50 meters is most likely based on two factors:
(1) the larger number of tailings dams constructed at lower heights and (2) the larger
number of tailings dams constructed earlier in the 20th century that were not designed and
monitored to current standards of practice.
A comparison of incidents for different dam types is shown in Figure 6. The left graph is
a plot of failure, accident, and groundwater (seepage issue) incidents versus the type of
dam construction. The type of dam construction includes construction in one stage, like a
water-storage dam, or staged construction in an upstream, centerline, or downstream
manner. The right graph is a plot of incidents versus the type of dam construction at dams
that were either active or inactive. It shows that the majority of incidents were associated
with dams in active operation.


Managing Aging Infrastructure

Figure 5. Incident and Dam Height Comparison (adapted from ICOLD 2001)

Figure 6. Incident and Dam Type Comparison (adapted from ICOLD 2001)
Both graphs show that the majority of incidents were associated with dams constructed in
stages in an upstream manner. The unknown category for dam construction indicates that
the incident was known, but the type of dam was not known. It is likely that many of
these unknown types of dams were actually upstream-constructed dams, which increases
the likely number of incidents associated with upstream dam construction.
A comparison of incident causes for active and inactive dams is shown in Figure 7. For
inactive dams, the leading causes of incidents are overtopping and earthquake effects. For
Dam Break Analysis Applied to Tailings Dams


active dams, the leading causes of incidents are slope stability and seepage, followed by
earthquake, overtopping, and foundation conditions.

Figure 7. Incident and Incident Cause Comparison (ICOLD 2001)

A comparison of incident causes for different dam type construction is shown in Figure 8.
The leading causes of incidents are slope stability, overtopping, and earthquake effects,
with the majority of incidents associated with upstream-constructed dams. Another
observation from Figures 7 and 8 is that most of the incidents were associated with the
water management aspects of the dam, with incidents due to either water overtopping the
dam or water seeping through the dam, affecting slope stability or propagating erosion.

Figure 8. Dam Type and Incident Cause Comparison (ICOLD 2001)


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From the evaluation presented here, tailings dam break analyses that utilize hypothetical
scenarios of overtopping or slope stability failure modes are consistent with available
incident review results.
While the majority of incidents appear to be associated with dams constructed in an
upstream manner, there is not a dam construction type that has been immune from
incidents. The key factors appear to be proper design, construction, operation, and
monitoring , especially pertaining to management of surface and subsurface water.
The workshop included presentations on the mechanics for tailings flow initiation and
transport, considerations for dam break and flow modeling, and applications including
case histories. This summary presents information from presentations by Lupo (2011),
Julien (2011), Dalpatram (2011), Browne (2011) and Kunkel (2011a and 2011b).

Tailings Phases and Flow

Tailings properties affect both break development and subsequent downstream flow.
When deposited, tailings undergo a thickening process, either by natural or mechanical
means, and can be present in the following phases, which may or may not require
containment within an embankment:

Suspension of solids in a liquid

Sedimentation of sands and slimes
Unconsolidated tailings
Consolidated tailings

Tailings suspensions behave as a liquid, and as the tailings thicken, the yield stress and
resistance to shear increases resistance to flow. The yield stress is a function of the solids
content and tailings properties. Traditional tailings slurry deposition follows the
sedimentation process, which depends on particle size and density, and under natural
conditions, results in clarified surface water and deposited sediments with a liquids-solids
interface. In addition to a traditional low-percent solids slurry, tailings may also be placed
using mechanically thickened or paste tailings deposition in a saturated environment.
Filtered and dewatered tailings deposition may also be employed, with improved shear
strength, resulting in a technique sometimes referred to as dry stacking, provided the
tailings behave as unsaturated materials and do not build up pore pressures.
Release and flow of tailings requires two conditions: triggering and flow mobility.
Tailings resistance to movement initiation is a function of the phase, and trigger
mechanisms can include loss of containment due to embankment break, static
liquefaction from high shear stress, and erosion due to tractive force of the runoff or
outflow. In response to a trigger mechanism, the shear stress on the tailings may be
sufficient to initiate movement. Whether there is mass movement of the tailings from the
disposal facility is a function of the critical state and liquefied strength of the tailings.

Dam Break Analysis Applied to Tailings Dams


Once triggering and flow mobility have been initiated, the tailings flow is governed by
the yield, viscous, turbulent, and dispersive stresses and follows rheology principles.
Flow of high-percent solids concentrations with large flow depths in flat terrain may be
dominated by viscosity and yield stresses, while low concentrations (< 40 percent) of
mobilized tailings in steep terrain would be dominated by turbulent stresses. Under
severe conditions giving rise to high velocities, large clastic particles can be carried by
the turbulent flow creating debris flow conditions. Traditional hydraulic models may be
good enough (conservative) in conditions where the turbulent stress is the dominant
component driving flow. Flow models that include viscosity terms are an important
consideration where mud flow situations may occur.
Other factors that can influence the mobility and flow of tailings include the mineralogy,
age, internal cementation, and stress history of the deposit. Operational characteristics
such as water pool location and depth and beach development, which may result in a
dilative rather than contractive deposit and improve consolidation and strength, may help
resist mobility. Thickened/paste tailings may also aid in this regard although the potential
for thin bed deposition can introduce weak planes.
Dam Break Geometry and Tailings Release Considerations
The workshop presentations contrasted between conditions for breaking of water-storage
dams and tailings-storage dams. While there is considerable guidance for break analysis
of water-storage dams, very limited guidance is available for tailings dams, and the use of
available numerical modeling tools/software require professional judgment, and the
results can be unreliable. One aspect of the break analysis of tailings dams is the quantity
of tailings mobilized during the release. In addition to tailings characteristics, the
mobilized volume is also a function of impoundment stage/storage curve and shape of the
impoundment, supernatant water in the impoundment, and water content of the tailings.
Additionally, the continued entrainment of tailings within the downstream flow is a
function of the downstream hydraulics, including the concurrent natural flows in the
downstream rivers.
Common models employed for dam break analysis do not include the capability for
modeling the stability, liquefaction, or erosion of the tailings so that an assumption is
employed for the quantity of tailings released. While models are available to aid in
estimating break parameters, they are not built for tailings dam situations and the
mechanics that may be involved with the stability or erosion of tailings during a dam
break. Another approach is to consider tailings dam break historical data. Table 1
presents several references and the associated tailings release quantities from a review of
historical tailings dam failures. The range of tailings released from the tailings dam
incidents reviewed was between 1 and 100 percent of the stored content, with a reported
average of between 20 and 40 percent, depending on the reference.


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Table 1. Historical Databases on Tailings Dam Failure and Release (Dalpatram 2011)
Released (%)
Range Avg.
Azam and Li (2010)
Garga and Khan (1995)
Lucia (1981)
Rico et al. (2007)
USCOLD (1994)
USCOLD (1994) and
31(1) 12-61(1) 1-100(1) 26(1)
Data interpreted by Dalpatram (2011).
Considerable discussion between presenters and attendees during the workshop related to
the volume of tailings release that should be considered for proposed tailings dams.
Participants expressed a variety of views regarding the typical assumption (based on the
survey discussed earlier) of 100 percent release of tailings to the break bottom elevation
(essentially treating the tailings as water) and the value of making estimates that reflect
the likelihood that not all the tailings will be released, provided there is technical
justification. There is considerable value in preparing realistic severe potential inundation
mapping, particularly where EAPs are involved. In some cases, regulatory guidelines
indicate that all, or substantially all, of the tailings should be assumed to be mobilized,
particularly if the purpose of the break analysis is to determine the structure hazard
potential classification.
Individual tailings dam failures such as the Los Frailes Tailings Dam have been used as a
basis for estimating potential remaining tailings geometry and thus the mobilized tailings
assuming partial or full break of the dam. In essence, a funnel shape has been assumed to
reflect the potential release volume from a break for an inactive tailings dam with similar
tailings characteristics as the specific historical case. For instance, a 5 percent angle
extending laterally upward from the bottom of the base of the break was proposed for
estimating the tailings release quantity for sites judged to be similar to the Los Frailes
Tailings Dam (Browne 2011).
Case histories on methods to analyze existing or proposed projects presented at the
workshop considered historical tailings dam failure databases as well as engineering
analyses to estimate the quantity of tailings released. Such engineering analyses included
the evaluation of the density and strength of the tailings to estimate those more subject to
mobilization and a slope equivalent to the tailings depositional slope or the steady-state
strength slope under liquefaction (e.g., 4 degrees). An additional approach for the
evaluation of tailings erosion is the estimation of the effect of critical tractive force on the
tailings on assumed break size, outflow, and velocity. The assumed or estimated tailings
release quantity affects the extent and level of inundation downstream following a break.
Thus, the purpose of the break analysis is an important consideration in selecting the
assumption. For potential hazard determination to classify a dam and establish design
criteria, it may be appropriate to select a more conservative estimate, and state and

Dam Break Analysis Applied to Tailings Dams


federal regulatory agencies may require that such an analysis consider a 100 percent
release. To prepare inundation maps for EAPs, it may be useful to consider a typical or
average tailings release quantity under regulatory guidance so that more reasonable
estimates are obtained, provided that sensitivity analyses are also performed.
Break parameters for tailings dam analysis include the break depth, width, side slopes,
and formation time. Many site-specific features can contribute to the selection of break
parameters although regulatory agencies expect conservative parameter selection. By
including sensitivity analyses of these parameters, consideration can be given to the
mechanisms that may form the break to establish a reasonable range for the time and
geometry of a break. The following sources of information were referenced during the
workshop for break parameter estimation:

Direct parameter guidance with little or no regard to tailings dams, such as the
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Engineering Guidelines

Empirical equations

Mathematical models to simulate the break process, such as DAMBRK or BREACH

by the US NWS

Dam Break Scenarios

Two dam break scenarios are typically analyzed: sunny day failure and rainy day
failure. For a sunny day scenario, the break may be caused by seepage, foundation
failure, earthquake, etc., with the supernatant pond water level at maximum normal
operating level and normal flows in rivers downstream of the dam (e.g., average annual
flow). The rainy day scenario is based on a flood-induced failure with the supernatant
pool level at the design flood level or higher (e.g., dam crest level). Flood flows are also
considered in the river(s) downstream, with the intent to consider flows most likely to
occur coincident with the break event. For instance, the tailings pond level for the rainy
day scenario might consider the PMF for the tailings pond watershed and the break
analysis routing analyzed with 100-year flows in the downstream river(s). Also, the rainy
day scenario can be anticipated to involve a greater tailings release volume due to the
larger amount of water within the pond at the time of break.
In addition to operational conditions, break analyses are also performed under inactive
and closure or reclaimed conditions where different assumptions regarding break and
tailings release volume are employed, and downstream inundation impacts could be much
more limited compared to an operational and flood-related failure scenario.
Case History
A case history (Kunkel 2011a) illustrated modeling of tailings release and flows
considering a 380-foot high dam with a tailings capacity of 144,300 acre-feet. Under
PMF conditions, the impoundment would store 9,200 acre-feet of water with the balance


Managing Aging Infrastructure

routed through the emergency spillway. Through cone penetrometer testing of the
tailings, the density and undrained shear strength of the materials were estimated and
considered relative to stability and critical tractive stress for a hypothetical break to
estimate the level and quantity of tailings release. The BREACH software from the NWS
(Fread 1988) was employed to evaluate a piping failure of the rockfill dam using site or
typical parameters for the break analysis. While it does not include non-Newtonian fluid
flow capabilities, nor does it evaluate erosion of tailings, the BREACH software was
used to estimate discharge velocity and tractive force so that tailings mobilization could
be terminated at a predetermined yield shear strength.
This mechanistic approach indicated that the tailings would be mobilized to a depth of
approximately 60 feet, resulting in a tailings release of about 22 percent of the
impoundment capacity. Figure 9 presents a comparison of this estimate with the
combined historical data from Rico et al. (2008) and Lucia et al. (1981), which suggest a
potential release volume of 46 percent based on extrapolation for the capacity of the
impoundment. Figure 10 presents a break outflow hydrograph for piping failure
conditions and a sunny day scenario. The twin peaks reflect the initial peak of water and
tailings release, followed by a secondary, delayed release due to the collapse of the
overlying dam materials into the breach created by the piping failure.

Figure 9. Case History Comparison of Computed Tailings Release with Historical

Database (Kunkel 2011a)

Dam Break Analysis Applied to Tailings Dams


Figure 10. Case History Computed Outflow Discharge (Kunkel 2011a and 2011b)
Kunkel (2011b) used the NWS FLDWAV Model (Fread 2000) to model the water and
tailings release during the dam break. This model is one-dimensional and includes
combined subcritical and supercritical flow algorithms, off-channel storage, lateral
inflows, and non-Newtonian fluid properties to represent the tailings considering internal
viscous dissipation based on the density and yield shear stress of the fluid. These
properties can influence the calculated discharge, flow depth, and time to peak in the dam
break analysis. The dynamic viscosity, density, and initial shear stress were estimated or
found in the literature and evaluated in sensitivity analyses. The sensitivity analyses, as
shown in Figure 11, illustrate that as the yield shear stress and dynamic viscosity
increase, the peak discharge decreases and maximum flow depth increases. Additional
sensitivity analyses for other parameters, including the tailings release volume, may also
be important for understanding of the range of impacts under a dam break scenario.


Managing Aging Infrastructure

Figure 11. Case History Sensitivity Analysis of Maximum Flow Depth and Peak
Discharge (adapted from Kunkel 2011b)
Workshop attendees and USSD Tailings Dams Committee members provided
suggestions for future actions related to the workshop topic. Suggestions were clustered
into 16 general groups, and a rating system (A+ = 3.25, A = 3, A- = 2.75, B+ = 2.25, B =
2, B- = 1.75, C+ = 1.25, C= 1, and C- = 0.75) was used to rank them.The top ranked
suggestion was to develop a summary of where we are, which could be a summary of
the outcomes of the workshop (although it was clear that no consensus was reached at the
workshop). This manuscript addresses this suggested action. Further discussions related
to future actions are summarized in the next paragraphs.
At a recent industry workshop in Australia held to launch the revised Guidelines on
Tailings Dams Planning, Design, Construction, Operation and Closure, developed by
ANCOLD (Australian National Committee on Large Dams), the issue of dam break
modeling was discussed at some length. An overwhelming majority of delegates agreed
that the status quo was to assume the tailings behaved like water and to proceed with
modeling of potential downstream impacts on this basis. It was also apparent at the
USSD workshop that this approach is common in the United States. Although it certainly
provides a conservatively high estimate of the potential downstream impact, it could
result in unnecessary anxiety for downstream communities, unnecessary and expensive
contingency plans by emergency agencies, and plummeting property prices for those in
the supposedly vulnerable areas. Clearly, this ultra-conservative approach does not serve
the public or owner well. Practitioners are encouraged to include a dam break scenario
that considers reasoned or analyzed tailings release volumes, even if the 100 percent
release scenario is also required to provide a perspective and potentially advance
discussion and consideration of this issue. Experience gained from historical failures
indicates that the downstream impacts are likely to be much less severe (in terms of
inundation zones) than would be the case if the discharged tailings behaved as though it
were water.

Dam Break Analysis Applied to Tailings Dams


It is suggested that future work should include:

Comparison of the inundation of historical tailings dam failures with the inundation
zone that would have been predicted on the assumption the tailings behaved like
waterAlthough it may be difficult to obtain the necessary topographical data for
more than a few of the historical failures, such an exercise could provide a basis of
how reasonable (or unreasonable) the assumption of tailings behaving like water
actually is.

Development of reasonable outflow hydrographs to quantify the rate of discharge

from breached tailings damsMany of the historical failures report evidence that the
break developed over a period of time, with the resultant release of tailings also
occurring over a protracted period rather than instantaneously. This is probably
particularly relevant to overtopping failures, where the break develops due to
downward erosion of the perimeter embankment as water flows over the embankment
crest. Failures triggered by liquefaction events may be different and may be
characterized by shorter duration hydrographs. To facilitate future modelling, it is
crucial that the potential range of hydrographs be developed and, where possible,
linked to specific modes of failure.

Development of a database of rheological properties of tailings that is relevant to the

dam break scenarioIf it is unreasonable to model the tailings as water, it will be
necessary to have models that represent non-Newtonian behavior, and relevant data
will be essential.

If the above issues are adequately addressed, and the results stored in an internationally
accessible database, modelers will have sufficient information to proceed with the
development of more accurate and reasonable predictive tools. The potential modeling
techniques are numerous, including computational fluid dynamics, discrete element
modeling, and smoothed particle hydrodynamics. It is therefore probably not appropriate
to try to predict which method will provide the best solution but rather to make sufficient
information available to facilitate development of a range of predictive tools.
Finally, as discussed at the USSD workshop, some of the existing models, particularly
methods to simulate break development and tailings release, are in-house models or
procedures and as such have not been subjected to independent peer review. Peer review
and independent application of the model or procedure are critical to address the problem
where a model with sufficient input parameters may be adjusted to produce any desired
It is suggested that a database of historical tailings dam failures be retained by an agency
(or perhaps a university) and all models that are proposed for use in regulatory approval
processes be required to provide their predictions of the inundation zone of these
historical failures. This approach, termed a Class A prediction, is essentially publication
of a prediction prior to knowledge of the outcome. Class A predictions were successfully


Managing Aging Infrastructure

used in the United Kingdom in the 1980s to screen various Finite Element programs for
application to Department of Transport projects. It is a useful precedent to consider.
Workshop presenters Russ Browne, Arvind Dalpatram, Pierre Julien, James Kunkel, John
Lupo, and Robert Martinez reviewed sections of this manuscript and provided valuable
feedback. Their contribution to the workshop and to this manuscript is acknowledged.
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Dam Break Analysis Applied to Tailings Dams



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