Managing tailings dams: what does it take?

We spoke to a prominent global gold mining company about how they manage their mine’s tailings management discipline across multiple regions and geographies.

Here’s what they had to say:

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The approach

There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to tailings management, as regulations, topography and climate conditions create unique challenges for each individual tailings storage facility (TSF).

This particular company ensures it gets inputs from the site, regional and even global level – tailings management legislation differs from region-to-region, and every TSF is unique.

It also makes overall tailings dam management a particular individual’s responsibility. This person need not be a technical expert, but they must be made accountable for the overall operations of the tailings dam.

The mining company we interviewed takes a structured approach to tailings management, and has a team of “tailings whisperers” – engineers at regional level to manage the technical requirements. Because these engineers have been dealing with this challenge for a while they have gained experience and are able to share their expertise with others. Proper TSF management is a scarce-skill and this way the company grows its own timber.

Also, here is an overriding philosophy that to the mining company’s tailings management: In the absence of a legal requirement, they will fall back on the framework they have devised.

Each site has a ‘functional champion’; this person is not necessarily a technical expert, but is responsible for identifying potential issues and flagging them with the regional experts to ensure that the guidelines set out in the framework are being met.

The mining company manages tailings across their global operations with an in-house framework that enforces and informs TSF design, construction and operation. The framework is broad enough to be used worldwide. Each site also has a site-specific operating manual that allows it to work within the regulatory or legal requirements set out by the specific region.

The technical teams provide guidance on how to unpack the principles set out in the framework, which is a best-practice manual, comprising the best of international standards and guidelines for tailings management.

It draws on documents from the International Committee on Large Dams, The Mining Association of Canada, the South African Bureau of Standards and the South African National Standard. It is also dynamic and can quickly accommodate any new standard or protocol to which the company is required to subscribe.

Good data

The process of managing tailings has not changed significantly, however in order to manage risk better, activities such as the frequency of inspections and additional monitoring have increased.

TSFs are not more unsafe than they were before, but people's risk appetite has changed, which has increased the need to monitor tailings more closely. A good tailings management system relies on the data being monitored and being alerted to issues as and when they arise. It is necessary to deal with risks according to their different alert levels and the key to doing this effectively is having the people on the ground who know what to look out for.

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