Tailings dam

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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.[1]

There are key differences between tailings dams and the more familiar hydroelectric dams. Tailings dams are designed for permanent containment, meant to "remain there forever".[2] Copper, gold, uranium and other mining operations produce varied kinds of waste, much of it toxic, which pose varied challenges for long-term containment.[3]

An estimated 3,500 active tailings impoundments stand around the world, although there is no complete inventory, and the total number is disputed. As of 2000 these structures experience known "major" failures of about 2 to 5 annually, along with 35 "minor" failures.[4] 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".[5]


Unlike water retention dams, a tailings dam is raised in succession 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 (depending on their size) along with dirt.[6]

Wheal Jane Tailings Dam, West Cornwall, England

There are three raised tailings dam designs, the upstream, downstream and centerline, named according to the movement of the crest during raising. 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.[7][8]

List of largest tailings dams[edit]

Rank Name[9] Country Year completed Structure height [m] Structure volume[10] [106 m3] Reservoir volume [109 m3] Installed capacity [MW] Type
1 Syncrude Tailings Dam Mildred MLSB[11]  Canada 1995 88 540[12]/720 0.35 NA TE
2 Syncrude Tailings Dam Mildred SWSS[13]  Canada 2010 40-50 119[12] 0.25[12] NA TE
3 ASARCO Mission Mine Tailings Dam  United States 1973 30[14] 40.1 0 [15] 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.[5] 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. [16]

Failure rate[edit]

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.[17][18] 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.[19]

Environmental damage[edit]

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.[20]

Tailings dam failures involving significant ecological damage include:

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.[35] The cost of mine cleanup has typically been 10 times that of mining industry estimates when acid drainage was involved.[36]


The following table of the deadliest known tailings dam failures is not comprehensive, and the casualty figures are estimates.

Dam/incident Year Location Fatalities Details
1962 Huogudu(火谷都), China tailing pond failure September 26, 1962 Huogudu (火谷都), GejiuYunan 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.[37][38]
Mina Plakalnitsa May 01, 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.[39]
Certej dam failure October 30, 1971 Certej Mine, Romania 89 A tailings dam built too tall collapsed, flooding Certeju de Sus with toxic tailings.[40]
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.[41]
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) [42]
El Cobre landslide March 28, 1965 Chile 300 Shaking from a magnitude 7.1 earthquake caused 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 On the 22nd February 1994 the Merriespruit tailings dam failed by overtopping as a consequence of heavy rains causing a flowslide (static liquefaction) of part of the embankment (Davies 2002). Water mismanagement was to blame that caused 600,000 m3 of tailings (1.2 Million tonnes) to mobilize out of the impoundment where the flow eventually stopped 2 km away in the town of Merriespruit (Penman 1998; Davies 2001). 17 people were killed and scores of houses were demolished (Fourie 2003). Figure 1 shows the extent of the damage to the town and the scale of the breached embankment.[43]
Taoshi landslide September 08, 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.[44]
Bento Rodrigues dam disaster November 05, 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 186+ A tailings dam at an iron ore mine operated by Vale S.A. suffered a catastrophic failure.[45]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Morgenstern, Norbert R. (19–20 September 2001), Geotechnics and Mine Waste Management – Update (PDF), Swedish Mining Association, Natur Vards Verket, European Commission, retrieved 2014-04-27
  2. ^ "Tailings Dams: Where Mining Waste is Stored Forever". FRONTLINE. Retrieved 28 January 2019.
  3. ^ May 19, Lori Culbert Updated:; 2017 (24 November 2001). "Story of a shattered life: A single childhood incident pushed Dawn Crey into a downward spiral - Vancouver Sun". Retrieved 28 January 2019.
  4. ^ http://www.infomine.com/publications/docs/Martin2000.pdf   dead link, 2018.
  5. ^ a b http://www.infomine.com/library/publications/docs/Azam2010.pdf   dead link, 2018.
  6. ^ Blight, Geoffrey E. (1998). "Construction of Tailings Dams". Case studies on tailings management. Paris, France: International Council on Metals and the Environment. pp. 9–10. ISBN 1-895720-29-X. Retrieved 10 August 2011.
  7. ^ "Properties of Tailings Dams" (PDF). NBK Institute of Mining Engineering. Archived from the original (PDF) on 1 October 2011. Retrieved 10 August 2011.http://mining.ubc.ca/files/2013/03/Dirk-van-Zyl.pdf
  8. ^ Environmental issues and management of waste in energy and mineral production: Proceedings of the Sixth International Conference on Environmental Issues and Management of Waste in Energy and Mineral Production: SWEMP 2000; Calgary, Alberta, Canada, May 30 – June 2, 2000. Rotterdam [u.a.]: Balkema. 2000. pp. 257–260. ISBN 90-5809-085-X. Retrieved 2015-11-09. |first= missing |last= (help)CS1 maint: Extra text: authors list (link)
  9. ^ Talk:List of largest dams in the world#Phantom Dams
  10. ^ Talk:List of largest dams in the world#Structure Volume
  11. ^ D. Nicol (1994) "The Syncrude Mildred Lake Tailings Dyke Redesign", 18th Int. Congr. Large Dams.
  12. ^ a b c Estimate based on height, dimensions from Google Earth and, where available, cross section. Accuracy ±15%
  13. ^ "Microsoft Word - Baseline Report on Fluid Deposits revE" (PDF). Retrieved 2011-02-16.
  14. ^ Estimate based on structure volume and dimensions from Google Earth
  15. ^ Zero reservoir size because full of tailings
  16. ^ 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
  17. ^ Lindsay Newland Bowker and David M Chambers, 2015. csp2.org
  18. ^ http://www.csp2.org/tailings-dam-failures-1915-2014
  19. ^ Honrubia, Mario (2019-04-03). "3 Ways of Making Mine Tailing Dams more Sustainable". Ennomotive. Retrieved 2019-04-04.
  20. ^ 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
  21. ^ Schvartsman, Fabio (25 January 2019). "Announcement about Brumadinho breach dam" (in Portuguese). Vale. Retrieved 26 January 2019.
  22. ^ "Firefighters confirm 40 dead, Vale announces list of non-contact employees". Isto é. 26 January 2019. Retrieved 26 January 2019.
  23. ^ Schipani, Andres (26 January 2019). "Vale mining dam failure leaves 7 dead in Brazil". Financial Times. Retrieved 26 January 2019.
  24. ^ Broadle, Anthony (26 January 2019). "Vale confirms tailings dam break at Feijao mine, echoing 2015 Samarco disaster". The Australian Financial Review. Retrieved 26 January 2019.
  25. ^ "Boechat: Mariana é a maior tragédia ambiental do Brasil". TV UOL. Retrieved 28 January 2019.
  26. ^ Joao. "É a maior tragédia ambiental do Brasil. Mas tem solução". www.ihu.unisinos.br. Retrieved 28 January 2019.
  27. ^ "Brazil dam burst: Six months on, the marks left by sea of sludge". BBC. 2016-05-05.
  28. ^ CBC News, August 2014. cbc.ca
  29. ^ Mineral Policy Institute, August 2014, Chronology of Major Tailings Dam Failures
  30. ^ "Death of a river", BBC, February 15, 2000
  31. ^ Quinones, Manuel; E; Tuesday, E. reporter Greenwire:; December 13; 2011. "URANIUM: As Cold War abuses linger, Navajo Nation faces new mining push". www.eenews.net. Retrieved 28 January 2019.
  32. ^ I. Torgoev, A.T. Jakubick, quoted in Merkel, Broder; Schipek, Mandy, editors (6 October 2011). The New Uranium Mining Boom: Challenge and lessons learned. Springer Science & Business Media. p. 232. Retrieved 3 January 2018.CS1 maint: Extra text: authors list (link)
  33. ^ Schramm, Manuel. ""Uranium Mining and the Environment in East and West Germany,"" (PDF). Rachel Carson Center Perspectives. Retrieved 8 January 2018.
  34. ^ Watson, Ivan (5 February 2008). "Kyrgyz Town Lives with Radioactive Soviet Legacy". National Public Radio. Retrieved 30 December 2017.
  35. ^ "Environmental Aspects of Uranium Mining: WNA - World Nuclear Association". www.world-nuclear.org. Retrieved 28 January 2019.
  36. ^ Jared Diamond (2005). Collapse. Penguin., page 452-458
  37. ^ The present situation and prospects for safety online-monitoring system of tailings pond (sic), by ZHOU Hanmin, YUAN Ziqing, SU Jun, YANG Xiaocong and ZHANG Da1, paper presented for the 3rd International Conference on Mechatronics, Robotics and Automation (ICMRA 2015)
  38. ^ "Introduction tailings dam-Alibaba Trade Forums". resources.alibaba.com. Retrieved 28 January 2019.
  39. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2012-07-28. Retrieved 2012-07-28.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  40. ^ "Certej 1971, tragedia uitată a 89 de vieţi îngropate sub 300 de mii de metri cubi de nămol". Adevărul. 31 August 2013. Retrieved 30 March 2013.
  41. ^ "Tailings.info ▪ Mufulira mine tailings breach, Zambia". www.tailings.info. Retrieved 28 January 2019.
  42. ^ "Nearly 100 dead in Myanmar jade mine collapse". www.aljazeera.com. Retrieved 28 January 2019.
  43. ^ "Tailings.info ▪ Merriespruit tailings dam failure". www.tailings.info. Retrieved 28 January 2019.
  44. ^ AsiaNews.it. "Taoshi landslide: hundreds dead, mine owner and government accused". www.asianews.it. Retrieved 28 January 2019.
  45. ^ "Brumadinho dam collapse in Brazil: Vale mine chief resigns". Retrieved 2019-03-03.

Further reading[edit]