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The Impact of Recent High Profile Tailings

Dam Failures
Thursday 8 June 2017

Professor David Williams

Director, Geotechnical Engineering Centre
The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia
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• Tailings disposal has been based on minimising short-
term capital and operating costs, with rehabilitation costs
discounted by application of a high discount factor (10%)
in a Net Present Value approach to accounting
• This has led to widespread adoption of surface tailings
storage facilities to store slurried tailings delivered by
robust and inexpensive centrifugal pumps and pipelines
• Solar and wind drying of exposed tailings, while losing
water to evaporation, can be effective in dewatering,
densifying and strengthening slurried tailings
• Mechanical dewatering of tailings to a thickened or paste
state, or to a filter cake is also gaining popularity

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Reported Tailings Dam Failures and
Causes – Number/10-Year Interval

Little reporting of incidents Better reporting of incidents

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Failure Causes vs. Tailings Dam Type

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1994 Merriespruit Tailings Dam
Failure, South Africa (c.f. Samarco)

Poor water management

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1998 Aznalcóllar Tailings Dam
Failure, Spain (c.f. Mount Polley)

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Owner and operator Boliden, has struggled to recover| Geotechnical
its market Engineering
share since!
Ongoing Tailings Dam Failures
• 2 to 4 tailings dam failures occur per year, not all of which
we hear about, as tailings volumes and dam heights, and
hence risks, escalate
• Focus is on those that occur in developed countries (e.g.
Mount Polley in Canada on 4 August 2014) or that involve
global mining companies (e.g. Samarco [BHP Billiton/Vale
joint ownership] in Brazil on 6 November 2015)

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Mount Polley Tailings Dam Failure,
Investigation and Repair
• 40 m high dam, with 2.3 m water freeboard
• Water and slimes against dam over long weekend –
failure was at 3:45am on Monday 4 August 2014
• Failure on soft clay foundation, leading to overtopping and
erosion ~10 Mm3 of water & ~4.5 Mm3 of tailings released
• Shares in Imperial Metals Corp lost 46% (~AUD0.65B)
immediately after failure
• Market capitalisation  Anticipated cost of repairs and
• Repair at same location as failure (more was known about
this location following failure investigations)
• Tailings deposition resumed in 12 months and 1 day!
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Mount Polley – Before and After

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Mount Polley TSF Failure
4 August 2014

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Mount Polley TSF Failure
4 August 2014

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Failure on a soft glacial clay foundation11layer, leading to| Geotechnical
overtopping and erosion
Engineering Centre
Financial Impact of Mount Polley
Tailings Dam Failure, and Repair

Share price

Repair at same location, allowing resumption within 12 months

Temporary containment New set-back embankment raise

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Areas Affected by Mount Polley
Tailings Dam Failure

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Remediation of Mount Polley
(Tailings & Mine Waste 2016)
• Lake deposits and tailings reactivity:
– Tailings went to base of deep lakes, where they will remain inert
as they are covered by natural sediments (~1 cm/year)
– Tailings are essentially non-reactive/non-mobile
• Main impacts:
– Hazeltine Creek:
• Only ~10 km long
• Impacts mainly physical – erosion and accretion of tailings
• We want our “natural” fishing habitat back!
• What has been key driver of remediation?
• What is risk of another tailings dam failure in BC?
• Liability of “Engineer of Record”!

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Options for Remediating Hazeltine

6 years after August 2010 Meager Creek slide and debris flow
Doing nothing at Mount Polley was considered not an option
Conceptualised Hazeltine Creek

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Remediation of Hazeltine Creek

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Fundão Tailings Dam Failure and
• With adjacent, heavily-buttressed, Germano Dam filled to
permitted level, Fundão Dam was built from 2007 to take
all Samarco tailings, at a time when ore grades were
dropping (leading to increased tailings)
• As a consequence, Fundão Dam was raised at 2 to 3
m/month, reaching 110 m height at time of failure!
• Stepped left abutment collapsed, releasing ~32 Mm3,
overtopping Santarém Dam, and inundating Bento
• 19 were killed (including 12 tailings dam workers), a hydro
dam 100 km downstream filled with tailings, and
suspended fines reached Atlantic ~600 km downstream in
10 days
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Germano Tailings Dam


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Financial Impact of Samarco Tailings
Dam Failure
• Share values:
– 50% owner BHP Billiton
lost 25% (~AUD29B)
immediately after failure,
c.f. value of Samarco to
– 50% owner Vale lost 32%
(~25B Reais ~AUD10B)

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Fundão Tailings Dam Failure and
• A further ~7 Mm3 of tailings was eroded by 700 mm
rainfall in January 2016
• 22 Senior Executives of Samarco, Vale, BHP Billiton (4
BHP B Sarmarco Board representatives), plus a few
consultants, were initially charged with murder on grounds
of putting profits before safety – Reduced to 19 being
• Personal liability/prosecution has become key driver!

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Fundão Tailings Dam Failure and
• BHP Billiton and Vale are covering Samarco's working
capital, and repair and relief work
• Samarco is no longer able to cover its debt repayments
• Claim against Samarco/BHP Billiton/Vale:
– Brazilian Government sought 20B Reais (~USD8B or ~AUD10.5B)
in clean-up costs and damages
– 2 March 2016: Samarco, BHP Billiton and Vale agree to pay
USD3B (~AUD4B) over 15 years
– 1 July 2016: Brazilian Superior Court reinstated 20B Reais
(~USD8B) claim
– Samarco, BHP Billiton and Vale appealing
• Animation:

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2007 Operational Requirement for a
200 m Sand Beach

Where did 200 m come from?

Often not met!

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Some Early Warnings of Potential for
Failure of Fundão Dam
Piping at downstream slope
of Dyke 1, 13 April 2009

Seepage, cracking and slumping

at left abutment on 15 November 2013

Cracks on dam crest and saturation at toe on 27 August 2014

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Post-failure – Upstream of Fundão Dam

Catch dam on Fundão Dam alignment

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Downstream of Fundão Dam Re-building Santarém Dam
Fundão Tailings Dam Failure – What
• Further investigations are taking place, aimed at
answering two key questions:
1. What extent of clean-up should be undertaken?
– Are tailings deposited in river contaminating or potentially
– Will suspended sediments return to pre-failure levels?
– To what extent do tailings deposited in river and hydro dam need
to be removed vs. what damage would be done to riparian zone in
process of removing deposited tailings vs. cost of removal?
2. What needs to happen for Samarco to re-start
– Restoration of stakeholder trust
– An enlarged TSF would need to be permitted and re-instated
– A downstream water dam would need to be permitted and built
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Leading Practice Tailings
Management Handbook (2016)
• Slurried tailings disposal to a surface tailings storage
facility (TSF) remains most common method
• In contrast to a pit failure, failure of tailings dam reports
directly to environment, potentially threatening life,
damaging infrastructure and impacting environment
• Surface TSFs are among most visible legacies of a mining
operation, which after closure and rehabilitation are
required to remain stable and produce no detrimental
effects to environment in perpetuity
• Poorly designed or operated TSFs lead to increased costs
of closure, ongoing impacts to environment, and a
perpetual risk to public health and safety
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Tailings Management Handbook –
Sustainable Development
Enduring value, encompassing sustainable Residual commodity represents enduring
development value of tailings
Failure can have substantial negative Loss of social licence to operate
Main cause of tailings incidents is poor Excess water should be rapidly removed
water control and stored off TSF
Early and ongoing consultations, TSF design, construction and operation
information sharing and dialogue with intent must be clearly conveyed to all
stakeholders involved
Compliance with recognised guidelines ANCOLD (2012) has become de facto
such as ANCOLD (2012), government Standard, with regulations and Company
regulations and Company policies policies dictating directions
Sustainable closure, post-mining land use Sustainable closure and post-mining land
and/or ecological function use/ecological function is challenging
Dry tailings transport and storage may be Dry tailings is largely limited to mines in
preferred overNoconventional
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transport and storage, where feasible | Geotechnical
tailings is becoming Engineering
more difficult Centre
to permit
Tailings Management Handbook –
Life-of-Mine Risk-Based Approach
• TSFs must be designed, operated, closed and
rehabilitated to ensure negligible health and safety risks,
and acceptably low community & environmental impacts
• A risk-based design approach provides a framework for
managing uncertainty and change associated with TSFs
• Stakeholders expect TSF designers to identify all risks
associated with tailings storage to demonstrate ALARP
• Alternative tailings management strategies need to be
thoroughly evaluated for cost and risk-effectiveness
• Risk-based operational tailings management requires
continuous performance observation and monitoring and
rapid response to potential failure and impacts, thereby
effectively managing risks
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Constraints under which TSFs Must
• Climatic and topographic setting of TSF
• Foundation conditions and borrow for embankments
• Nature of tailings (clay minerals?)
• Tailings production rates and % solids
• Need to manage, store, and recycle when possible,
supernatant tailings water
• Need to meet discharge water quality licence conditions
• Need to maximise tailings settled dry density, and hence
minimise wall raising and tailings storage volume
• Need to facilitate upstream raising, where appropriate
• Need to rehabilitate TSF on closure to achieve agreed
completion criteria, and land use or ecological function
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Optimising Tailings Management
• Divert clean rainfall runoff around TSF
• Discharge tailings as thick as can cost-effectively be
managed (paste only in-pit or underground via gravity)
• Spigot thickened tailings in thin layers and cycle
deposition between a number of cells
• Maintaining a small decant pond to maximise dewatering,
desiccation, densification and strengthening of tailings,
provided dust can be controlled
• Ideally, having separate evaporation or tailings water
storage ponds
• Scale-up robust filtration technologies, including belt
press, plate and frame and screw press

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Future Tailings Project at UQ GEC
• Geotechnical Engineering Centre (GEC) at The University
of Queensland (UQ) is focused on adding value to mining
industry partners through applied project work
• Future Tailings Project is a new initiative by GEC with
integrated aims of:
– Preserving mining industry’s future “Social Licence to Operate”
– Improving prediction of tailings run-out volume and distance (from
10 km to a lake at Mount Polley to 600 km to the sea at Samarco!)
– Negating risk of tailings dam failures – They are preventable and
should not happen!
– Optimising tailings dewatering, transport, deposition, water
recovery, densification and strengthening
– Facilitating cost-effective and functional tailings closure
– Training – Researchers, and Masters and Industry courses
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Future Tailings Project at UQ GEC
• Current Projects:
– Escondida Tailings Project:
• AUD366,000 over 3 years (2017-2019)
• Focusing on tailings filtration and closure
• Engaging PhD student Hernan Cifuentes
– Samarco Tailings Project:
• Column testing of Samarco sand and slimes at UQ
• Engaging Samarco and GroundProbe over 3 years (2017-2019)
• Engaging PhD student Luke Clarkson
– Rio Tinto Aluminium sites:
• QAL – salt uptake from compacted red mud into a cover
• Ongoing involvement in tailings management and dam design reviews
at RTA sites
– Various coal mines in NSW and Queensland:
• Ongoing involvement advising feasibility studies and tailings closure
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Tailings Continuum (adapted from
Davies and Rice, 2004)

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Optimum for disposal to a surface TSF 33
is likely to be thickened, otherwise
| Geotechnical filtered
Engineering Centre
Consistency of Thickened, Centrifuged
and Filtered Tailings

High density slurry High slump paste Low slump paste

Centrifuged (wet cake) Filtered (dry cake)

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Filtration gives tailings more “structure” than thickening or centrifuging
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Belt-Press Filtration of Coal Tailings
(Howich – from mid-1980s)

Conveyoring of filter cake

and coarse reject

Belt press filtering

End-dumping in spoil piles

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Shallow On-Off Coal Tailings Cells
(Charbon – from 1990)

Harvesting wet tailings by excavator Harvesting desiccated tailings by loader

Dumping harvested tailings

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“Dry” Stacking of Tailings – La
Coipa, Chile (Davies & Rice, 2001)

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Future Tailings Project – Purpose-
Built Slurry Consolidometer
Purpose-built, lab slurry
• Diameter 150 mm
• Height 410 mm
• Instrumented with top
and base load cells,
and 7 pore water
pressure transducers

Enabling tailings slurry

specimens to be placed
in layers, allowed to
settle and then
consolidated under up
to 500 kPa (~60 m of
tailings self-weight)

Simulating build-up of
tailings from a slurry

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Future Tailings Project – Column
Settling, Consolidation & Desiccation
Purpose-built settling, consolidation
and desiccation column for use in lab
200 mm and field (with a weather station):
• Diameter 200 mm
• Height 1.4 m, in sections for ease of
specimen preparation and post-test
400 mm sampling
• Instrumented with in-house
developed, inexpensive, robust and
calibrated moisture, salinity,
temperature and suction sensors
400 mm • Water balance monitored
• Tested from a slurry placed in layers

Calibrated from lab to field to full-scale

400 mm For optimising deposition layer
thickness and cycle time, and
hence TSF footprint for a given
tailings production

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Laboratory Column Setup

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Roof or Mine Site Column Setup

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Inexpensive, Salt-Tolerant Moisture,
Suction and Salinity Sensors
Moisture sensor Salinity sensor

Suction sensors
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Inexpensive and Robust Load Cell
Replacing Conventional Balances

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Laboratory Sensor Calibration

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Inexpensive Dataloggers Replacing
Expensive Commercial Loggers
• Large numbers of analog (15) and
digital channels (53) available for
connecting proprietary and in-house

• In situ, continuous, and real-time

data acquisition and delivery to
internet cloud through either WiFi or

• Ability to change monitoring

configuration and frequency remotely

• Ability to record photo snapshots

• Low power consumption and sensor

stability due to powering sensors

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Discussion Points
• Why do different regions have different tailings
containment practices? For example:
– Upstream construction in South Africa and Australia
– Downstream construction in wet regions
– Sand dams (cycloned and or compacted) in South America
• What are key determinants of tailings management?
– Personnel involved and their experiences
– “This is what we have always done”!
• What is risk of another tailings dam failure worldwide?
– Almost certain, including in developed countries and mines
operated by global mining companies!
• 6 tailings dams potentially at risk in BC, Canada (lack of data)
• Perhaps 30 tailings dams at risk in Minas Gerais, Brazil

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Discussion Points
• What are responses to tailings dam failures?
– Reviews of:
• Existing tailings dams by major mining companies
• Existing tailings dams required by Regulators, e.g. BC, Canada
• What about abandoned tailings dams?
– More conservative (lowest bound) tailings dam designs?
– Changes in tailings containment practices:
• Sometimes certain practices are outlawed, for example:
Upstream construction was outlawed in Chile following earthquake-induced
failures of upstream dams
Compaction of cyclone sand dams is also required in Chile
– Liability of “Engineer of Record” or design engineer!
– Concern about personal liability/prosecution of senior executives
driving tailings management!
– Legalistic approach!
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