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The Risks of Excess Water on Tailings Facilities and Its Application to Dam-break Studies

Holly Rourke and Dave Luppnow
Monday, July 27, 2015
First presented: 
Tailings and Mine Waste Management 2015
Mine Waste

Recent disasters such as the failure of the Mount Polley tailings embankment remind us of the risks that tailings facilities pose.  It is widely recognised that dam-break assessments are a vital tool in identifying the consequences of the failure of a facility, which in turn can be used to develop emergency action plans.  A typical assessment includes an estimation of breach parameters and outflow volume, followed by the preparation of an inundation map to illustrate potential flow extents and downstream impacts. 

This paper focuses on the estimation of outflow volumes, which is an area that the authors feel can be improved.  Presently, many types of analyses assume that the volume of tailings released is only a function of the storage volume and dam height.  After a review of several documented tailings failures, it has been found that the extent and depth of the supernatant pond needs to be considered as it is just as important, if not more so, as the storage volume and dam height.  Tailings facilities with excess water storage have a higher risk of failure as they are more susceptible to overtopping, piping and liquefaction failures.  In addition, they pose greater failure consequences as the saturated conditions will lead to more material being mobilised. This paper has reviewed available information on a number of tailings dam failures and proposes an alternative estimation of potential tailings release volumes as a function of supernatant water stored on the facility for use in dam-break analyses.  In a broader sense, the paper seeks to shift the current risk paradigm from tailings dam heights to volumes of water stored and provides a basis for continuing research and discussion.

SRK North America