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Tailings Dam Failures: Factors and Causes

Updated: Jun 5


Tailings dams are critical in mining, designed to store the byproducts of mining processes. However, their failures can lead to catastrophic environmental, economic, and social consequences. Understanding the factors and causes behind these failures is essential for geotechnical professionals and industry stakeholders to enhance safety measures and prevent future incidents.

The stability of a tailings dam largely depends on the properties of the soil and rock it is built on. Poorly understood or managed geotechnical conditions can lead to slope instability and potential collapse. Inadequate drainage can cause internal erosion, further compromising the dam's integrity. Effective water management is critical. Overwhelming rainfall and insufficient drainage systems can lead to overtopping and structural failure. Unforeseen flood events can exceed a dam's design capacity, causing significant risk.

Construction, maintenance, and operation practices play a significant role in dam stability. Poor construction practices, lack of regular maintenance, and operational errors can compromise the dam's integrity. Comprehensive operational protocols and regular training for personnel are vital to ensure safe practices. Environmental and climatic changes, including those induced by climate change, pose additional challenges. Increased frequency of extreme weather events and natural disasters such as earthquakes can significantly impact the stability of tailings dams.

One notable case is the Brumadinho Dam Disaster in Brazil in 2019. The collapse of the dam due to liquefaction of the tailings led to the deaths of 270 people and extensive environmental damage. Investigations revealed inadequate monitoring and a failure to address known stability issues. This disaster highlights the critical need for robust monitoring and regular assessment of tailings dam conditions.

Effective risk assessment and management are paramount to preventing tailings dam failures. Advanced techniques, such as geotechnical modeling and probabilistic risk assessments, help identify potential failure modes and assess their likelihood. Implementing robust monitoring and early warning systems can provide critical information for timely interventions. International standards, such as those set by the International Commission on Large Dams (ICOLD), provide guidelines for the design, construction, and maintenance of tailings dams. National regulations vary, but they generally emphasize rigorous safety standards and regular inspections. Industry organizations and stakeholders play a crucial role in promoting compliance and advancing best practices.

Innovations in dam design and materials, such as the use of synthetic liners and improved compaction techniques, offer promising avenues for enhancing dam stability. Technological advancements, including remote sensing and real-time monitoring systems, provide more accurate and timely data for decision-making.

The prevention of tailings dam failures is a multifaceted challenge requiring advanced technological solutions. The Daarwin platform exemplifies such innovation, offering significant benefits to enhance the safety and reliability of tailings dams. By leveraging artificial intelligence, Daarwin provides real-time monitoring and predictive analytics, which are crucial for early detection of potential issues.

Daarwin's ability to optimize groundwater flow parameters in predictive numerical models ensures that the data used for stability assessments is highly accurate. This precision allows for better-informed decision-making and risk management. The sensitivity analysis feature identifies the most critical geotechnical units, allowing engineers to focus on the factors that most significantly influence groundwater flow behavior. This targeted approach not only reduces the complexity of the problem but also enhances the effectiveness of mitigation strategies.

Furthermore, the platform's capability to integrate user-specific instrumentation and perform back-analyses of collected data yields more realistic geotechnical parameters. This functionality is pivotal for optimizing dam designs, leading to structures that are inherently more stable and less prone to failure. The continuous optimization process facilitated by Daarwin ensures that the dam designs remain robust against evolving environmental and operational conditions.

Reflecting on the Brumadinho Dam Disaster, Daarwin could have provided the robust monitoring and predictive capabilities necessary to identify and address the known stability issues before they led to catastrophic failure. By continuously analyzing real-time data and optimizing geotechnical parameters, the platform could have detected signs of liquefaction risk early, enabling timely interventions to prevent the disaster.


European Innovation Council
Creand and Scalelab
Mott Macdonald
Cemex Ventures
Mobile World Capital
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