A tailings dam is typically an earth-fill embankment dam used to store byproducts of mining operations after separating the ore from the gangue. Tailings can be liquid, solid, or a slurry of fine particles, and are usually highly toxic and potentially radioactive. Solid tailings are often used as part of the structure itself.
Tailings dams rank among the largest engineered structures on earth. The Syncrude Mildred Lake Tailings Dyke in Alberta, Canada, is an embankment dam about 18 kilometres (11 mi) long and from 40 to 88 metres (131 to 289 ft) high. It is the largest dam structure on earth by volume, and as of 2001 it was believed to be the largest earth structure in the world by volume of fill.
There are key differences between tailings dams and the more familiar hydroelectric dams. Tailings dams are designed for permanent containment, meaning they are intended to "remain there forever". Copper, gold, uranium and other mining operations produce varied kinds of waste, much of it toxic, which pose varied challenges for long-term containment.
An estimated 3,500 active tailings impoundments stand around the world, although there is no complete inventory, and the total number is disputed. In an average year, it would be expected that between 2 and 5 "major" tailings dam failures would occur, along with 35 "minor" failures. Assuming the 3,500 figure is correct, this failure rate is "more than two orders of magnitude higher than the failure rate of conventional water retention dams". A 2020 assessment of responsible mining practices by the Responsible Mining Foundation, found that companies have made little or no progress in improving the documentation and safety practices of these ponds.
Unlike water retention dams, the height of a tailings dam is typically increased (raised) throughout the life of the particular mine. Typically, a base or starter dam is constructed, and as it fills with a mixture of tailings and water, it is raised. Material used to raise the dam can include the tailings (if their properties are suitable), earthfill, or rockfill.
There are three types of dam raises, the upstream, downstream and centerline, named according to the relative position of the new crest of the dam to the previous. The specific design used is dependent upon topography, geology, climate, the type of tailings, and cost. An upstream tailings dam consists of trapezoidal embankments being constructed on top but toe to crest of another, moving the crest further upstream. This creates a relatively flat downstream side and a jagged upstream side which is supported by tailings slurry in the impoundment. The downstream design refers to the successive raising of the embankment that positions the fill and crest further downstream. A centerlined dam has sequential embankment dams constructed directly on top of another while fill is placed on the downstream side for support and slurry supports the upstream side.
List of largest tailings dams
|Rank||Name||Country||Year completed||Structure height [m]||Structure volume [106 m3]||Reservoir volume [109 m3]||Installed capacity [MW]||Type|
|1||Syncrude Tailings Dam Mildred MLSB||Canada||1995||88||540/720||0.35||NA||TE|
|2||Syncrude Tailings Dam Mildred SWSS||Canada||2010||40-50||119||0.25||NA||TE|
|3||ASARCO Mission Mine Tailings Dam||United States||1973||30||40.1||0 ||NA||ER|
Type: TE - Earth; ER - Rock-fill; PG - Concrete gravity; CFRD - Concrete face rock fill
The standard of public reporting on tailings dam incidents is poor. A large number remain completely unreported, or lack basic facts when reported. There is no comprehensive database for historic failures. According to mining engineer David M Chambers of the Center for Science in Public Participation, 10,000 years is "a conservative estimate" of how long most tailings dams will need to maintain structural integrity.
The lack of any comprehensive tailings dam database has prevented meaningful analysis, either gross comparisons (such as country to country comparisons, or tailings dam failures versus hydro dam failure rates) or technical failure analysis to help prevent future incidents. The records are very incomplete on crucial data elements: design height of dam, design footprint, construction type (upstream, downstream, center line), age, design life, construction status, ownership status, capacity, release volume, runout, etc.
An interdisciplinary research report from 2015 recompiled the official global record on tailings dam failures and major incidents and offered a framework for examining the severity and consequence of major incidents. That report shows a correlation between failure rates and the pace of copper ore production, and also establishes a relationship between the pursuit of lower grades of ore, which produces larger volumes of waste, and increasingly severe incidents. For this reason, several programs to make tailing dams more sustainable have been set in motion in countries like Chile, where there are more than 740 spread across the country.
The mining and processing byproducts collected in tailings dams are not part of the aerobic ecological systems, and are unstable. They may damage the environment by releasing toxic metals (arsenic and mercury among others), by acid drainage (usually by microbial action on sulfide ores), or by damaging aquatic wildlife that rely on clear water.
Tailings dam failures involving significant ecological damage include:
- the Brumadinho dam disaster, Brazil, January 25, 2019, where as many as 252 people are unaccounted for, and at least 134 are dead. The disaster released 12 million cubic meters of iron waste leading to the Paraopeba River.
- the Bento Rodrigues dam disaster, Brazil, November 5, 2015, considered the worst environmental disaster in Brazil's history, killed 19 people when an iron ore containment dam failed and released 60 million cubic meters of iron waste.
- the Mount Polley mine, British Columbia, August 4, 2014, which released 10 million cubic metres of water and 4.5 million cubic metres of metals-laden tailings from a holding reservoir.
- the Ok Tedi environmental disaster in New Guinea, which destroyed the fishery of the Ok Tedi River, continuously from 1984 through 2013
- the Sotkamo metals mine, Finland, 4 November 2012, released "hundreds of thousands of cubic metres" of waste water which raised concentrations of uranium, nickel, and zinc in nearby Snow River, each to at least 10 times the harmful level.
- the Ajka alumina plant accident, Hungary, October 4, 2010, which released one million cubic metres of red mud, a waste product of aluminum refining, flooding the village of Kolontár and killing the Marcal River.
- the Baia Mare cyanide spill, Romania, January 30, 2000, called the worst environmental disaster in Europe since the Chernobyl disaster
- The Doñana disaster, southern Spain, 25 April 1998, which released 4 million-5 million cubic metres of acidic tailings containing heavy metals.
- the Church Rock uranium mill spill in New Mexico, July 16, 1979, the largest release of radioactive waste in U.S. history 
- three uranium tailings dams near the town of Ak-Tüz, present-day Kyrgyzstan, collapsed in a December 1964 earthquake, releasing 60% of their radioactive volume (600,000 cubic metres (21,000,000 cu ft)) into the Kichi-Kemin River and its agricultural valley
- an incident on April 7, 1961, released 700,000 cubic metres (25,000,000 cu ft) of uranium mine tailings from operations of the Soviet-era Wismut organization into the Zwickauer Mulde River in the village of Oberrothenbach
- the Mailuu-Suu tailings dam failure also in Soviet-era Kyrgyzstan on April 16, 1958, caused the uncontrolled release of 600,000 cubic metres (21,000,000 cu ft) of the radioactive uranium-mine tailings in to spill downstream into a portion of the densely populated Ferghana Valley
Tailings ponds can also be a source of acid drainage, leading to the need for permanent monitoring and treatment of water passing through the tailings dam. For instance in 1994 the operators of the Olympic Dam mine, Western Mining Corporation, admitted that their uranium tailings containment had released of up to 5 million m3 of contaminated water into the subsoil. The cost of mine cleanup has typically been 10 times that of mining industry estimates when acid drainage was involved.
The following table of the deadliest known tailings dam failures is not comprehensive, and the casualty figures are estimates.
|1962 Huogudu(火谷都), China tailing pond failure||September 26, 1962||Huogudu (火谷都), Gejiu， Yunan Province, China||171||Few details available. A tailings pond at a tin mine operated by Yunnan Tin Group collapsed. 368M m3 surged. One source reports 171 killed and another 92 injured; another has the date as September 26.|
|Mina Plakalnitsa||May 1, 1966||Vratsa, Bulgaria||480+||A tailings dam at Plakalnitsa copper mine near the city of Vratsa failed. A total 450,000 cu m of mud and water inundated Vratsa and the nearby village of Zgorigrad, which suffered widespread damage. The official death toll is 107, but the unofficial estimate was more than 480.|
|Certej dam failure||October 30, 1971||Certej Mine, Romania||89||A tailings dam built too tall collapsed, flooding Certeju de Sus with toxic tailings.|
|Buffalo Creek Flood||February 26, 1972||West Virginia, United States||125||Unstable loose constructed dam created by local coal mining company, collapsed in heavy rain. 1,121 injured, 507 houses destroyed, over 4,000 left homeless.|
|Val di Stava dam||July 18, 1985||Tesero, Italy||268||Poor maintenance and low margin for error in design; outlet pipes failed, leading to pressure on dam and sudden collapse. Ten people were ultimately convicted of manslaughter and other charges.|
|Mufulira||1970||Zambia||89||A tailings reservoir breached and collapsed into the copper mine below it, killing 89 night-shift workers.|
|Aberfan disaster||October 21, 1966||Wales||144||The collapse and landslide of a spoil tip accumulated above the mining town on geologically unstable ground killed 28 adults and 116 children (not an engineered structure)|
|Hpakant jade mine disaster||October 25, 2015||Myanmar||113||A slag heap reportedly used by multiple operators in this jade-mining region became unstable and flooded into nearby residences (not an engineered structure)|
|El Cobre landslide||March 28, 1965||Chile||300||Shaking from a magnitude 7.4 earthquake caused the failure of two tailings dams at the El Soldado copper mine. The resulting flow destroyed the town of El Cobre.|
|Merriespruit Tailings Dam Failure||February 22, 1994||Virginia, Free State, South Africa||17||Merriespruit tailings dam overtopped in heavy rains. The flow of an estimated 600,000 m3 (1.2 Million tonnes) of tailings reached the town of Merriespruit 2 kilometers away. With the seventeen fatal casualties, dozens of homes were engulfed.|
|Taoshi landslide||September 8, 2008||Linfen, Shanxi Province, China||254+||Iron mine tailings, formerly administered by the state and then put into private hands, collapsed into a village at 8 a.m.|
|Bento Rodrigues dam disaster||November 5, 2015||Mariana, Minas Gerais, Brazil||19||A tailings dam at an iron ore mine jointly owned by Vale S.A. and BHP and suffered a catastrophic failure releasing around 60 million cubic meters of iron waste into the Doce River which reached the Atlantic Ocean.|
|Brumadinho dam disaster||January 25, 2019||Brumadinho, Minas Gerais, Brazil||259+||A tailings dam at an iron ore mine operated by Vale S.A. suffered a catastrophic failure.|
The following list focuses on the largest tailings dam failures:
|Name||Released volume [103 m3]||Date of failure||Country||Environmental consequences||Reservoir volume [103 m3]||Dam type||Notes|
|Padcal No. 2||80,000
|Philippines||Damaged "large tracts of prime agricultural land"; mine paid penalties to provincial treasury of Pangasinan.||80,000||Copper mine. Dam wall collapsed.|
|Mariana dam disaster
(Bento Rodrigues, Samarco)
|Brazil||Significant contamination of Rio Doce and Atlantic Ocean.||55,000||Iron ore tailings Flávio Fonseca de Carmo, Luciana Hiromi et al. say 43x106 m3 of tailings released, which was 80% of the stored volume.|
|Brumadinho dam disaster||12,000||2019 January 25||Brazil||Metals in tailings to be incorporated into rivers' soil.||Earth||Iron ore tailings.|
|Ajka alumina plant accident||1000||2010 October 4||Hungary||The waste extinguished all life in the Marcal river, alkaline mud reached the Danube||Red mud|
|Philippines||"Widespread inundation of agricultural land up to 1.5 m high"||37,000||Dam failure, due to slippage of foundation|
|Canada||74,000||4.5 Mm3 water, 10 Mm3 metals-laden tailings, plus interstitial water in tailings.|
|American Cyanamid||11,400||1962||U.S.A.||Acidic water flowed into a wetland called Hooker's Prairie. It was contained there and limed before discharge into South Prong of Alafia River.||Phosphate, Florida.|
|Padcal No. 3||5,000-10,000||2012
|Philippines||Balog and Agno Rivers heavily polluted.||250,000
|Canada||Tlatzen First Nation alleges mercury has destroyed fishery in the lake.||Mercury mine waste containment dam collapses.|
|Payne Creek Mine||6,800||1994
|U.S.A.||Water from a clay settling pond. Majority of release contained on adjacent mining area; 500,000 m3 escaped into a creek|
|Spain||15,000||Acidic tailings containing heavy metals|
|Guyana||5,250||Gold mine. Tailings release contained cyanide.|
|Kingston power plant||4,100||2008
|U.S.A.||Heavy metals; large fish kill; town inundated;||Fly ash slurry from a coal-fired power plant.|
|Mexico||> 300 human fatalities||25,000 (estimate)||Silver and gold mine.|
|Quinette, Maemot||2,500||1985||Canada||River valley filled with waste for 2.5 km.||Coal mine.|
|Rio Pomba Cataguases||2,000||2007
|Brazil||Bauxite (Aluminum) mine|
|Tyrone, New Mexico||2,000||1980
|U.S.A.||Tailings flow 8 km downstream and inundate farmland.||Copper mine.|
|U.S.A.||Spill into wetlands and Alafia River||Water from a clay settling pond|
|South Africa||Slurry travelled 2 km, covering about 1⁄2 km2. 17 fatalities.||7,040||Gold mine.|
|2008 Shanxi mudslide||2008||China|
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- Talk:List of largest dams in the world#Phantom Dams
- Talk:List of largest dams in the world#Structure Volume
- D. Nicol (1994) "The Syncrude Mildred Lake Tailings Dyke Redesign", 18th Int. Congr. Large Dams.
- Estimate based on height, dimensions from Google Earth and, where available, cross section. Accuracy ±15%
- "Microsoft Word - Baseline Report on Fluid Deposits revE" (PDF). Retrieved 16 February 2011.
- Estimate based on structure volume and dimensions from Google Earth
- Zero reservoir size because full of tailings
- David M Chambers, "Long Term Risk of Releasing Potentially Acid Producing Waste Due to Tailings Dam Failure". Center for Science in Public Participation. Page 3 of 12. CSP2.org
- Lindsay Newland Bowker and David M Chambers, 2015. csp2.org
- "Tailings Dam Failures 1915 - 2014 : CSP2". www.csp2.org. Archived from the original on 2016-03-04.
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- Franks, DM, Boger, DV, Côte, CM, Mulligan, DR. 2011. Sustainable Development Principles for the Disposal of Mining and Mineral Processing Wastes. Resources Policy. Vol. 36. No. 2. pp 114-122
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Wise Uranium, 2018. "Chronology of Major Tailings Dam Failures" gives outflow as 80 million tonnes.
- Flávio Fonseca de Carmo, Luciana Hiromi, and others, 2017. "Fundão tailings dam failures: the environment tragedy of the largest technological disaster of Brazilian mining in global context" Perspectives in Ecology and ConservationVolume 15, Issue 3, July–September 2017, Pages 145-151
- Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines and others, September 2012. "The Philex Mine Tailings Spill Of 2012: An Independent Fact Finding Mission Report" , p 18/26. Accessed July 2018.
- International Commission on Large Dams (ICOLD), 2001 Tailings Dams Risk of Dangerous Occurrences P 95. Gives storage and released amounts both as 80 million tonnes. Accessed July 2018.
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- Wise Uranium, "Chronology of Major Tailings Dam Failures" (2018) gives release size as 28 million tonnes. Thus the volume would be 28 million cubic metres if it was all water, and more if the release included tailings solids, which is likely.
- Source gives amount as 28 million tonnes. See also the CSP2 table of tailings dam failures , lines 375-6, which gives a conversion factor of 1.6 (volume/mass).
- Mineral Policy Institute Chronology of major tailings dam failures
- Jennni Sheppard, "Imperial Metals was warned about height of wastewater in tailings pond most recently in May" CBC News, August 5, 2014
- Center for Science in Public Participation, "Tailings Dam Failures, 1915-2016"
Adam, NASA Earth Observatory, 17 August 2014."Dam Breach at Mount Polley Mine in British Columbia" Both articles accessed June 2018.
- Hi Tech Solutions, 2000. "Evaluation of the Effectiveness of Neutralizing Accidental Spills of Acidic Waste From Holding Ponds" , p. 5. Accessed June 2018.
- Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines and others, September 2012. "The Philex Mine Tailings Spill Of 2012: An Independent Fact Finding Mission Report" , p 18/26, cites Philippines DENR as estimating the stored tailings mass as 163 million tonnes. Specific gravity of tailings is typically about 1.6 according to Centre for Science in Public Participation, "Tailings Dam Failures, 1915-2016", op. cit. Accessed July 2018.
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- The source gives an estimate of 14.7 million tons. Multiplying this by a typical specific gravity for tailings of 1.6, as suggested by the Center for Science in Public Participation, "Tailings Dam Failures, 1915-2016" (op. cit.) gives approximately 25 million cubic metres of volume.
- May have been more like 2,000 Mm3. See ICOLD 2001, op cit.
- Michael P Davies, "Tailings Impoundment Failures: Are Geotechnical Engineers Listening?" Geotechnical News, September 2002. http://www.pebblescience.org/pdfs/Dam_failuresDavies2002.pdf
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