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Deeper research is needed to prevent fatal mining disasters

- Wits University

Wits geotechnical engineer and his colleagues commented on the reasons on why fatal mine disasters occur in an article published in Science.

Dr Luis Alberto Torres-CruzDeeper research and improved management is required to prevent disastrous failures in coal ash and tailings dams. 

This is the view of Wits geotechnical engineer, Dr Luis Alberto Torres-Cruz, who, along with Prof J. Carlos Santamarina (King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, Saudi Arabia) and Dr Robert C. Bachus (Geosyntec Consultants, USA) commented on the reasons for these failures in an article published in Science in May.

Commenting on recent failures in tailings dams and coal ash ponds, the authors note that “these failures underscore the need for new performance-monitoring instrumentation, better technologies for characterising existing impoundments, and appropriate retrofitting strategies.”

The authors’ comments were sparked by the failure of a tailings dam in Brumadinho, Brazil on 25 January. In this incident, the structure damming a pond filled with iron ore mining wastes (tailings) burst, causing a massive mudslide that killed at least 232 people.

Similar accidents have occurred in South Africa. In 1973 the failure of a platinum tailings dam in Bafokeng killed 12 people and in 1994 the failure of a gold tailings dam in Merriespruit resulted in the death of 17 people. No major tailings dam failures have occurred in South Africa since the Merriespruit disaster.

The tailings dam that failed in Brumadinho, Brazil was built using the so-called upstream construction method. Following the failure, Brazilian authorities banned upstream tailings dams, which are also built in South Africa.

The results of a tailings dam failure.

However, the authors note that “most upstream dams have performed well, and storage dams built using (alternative) methods have also failed.” The paper thus highlights that the path to preventing these accidents may not be as simple as a ban on a specific construction method.

Read the full article in Science here.