How a mining company manages tailings dams at site, regional and global levels

Responsible management of the world's resources is key to enabling a sustainable future, according to the International Council of Mining & Metals (ICMM). The management of tailings, both during and after mining, is the responsibility of mining companies and is subject to advanced regulatory regimes. This means that tailings management needs to be effective through all phases of a mining project, from construction through to closure and post-closure.

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

The company realized that input at a site, regional and global level was needed to ensure that unique risks were appropriately managed and that the facilities were compliant. They also identified that appropriate resources must be involved; including appointing individuals who are accountable for the overall operation of the tailings dam and the day-to-day activities. These individuals are not always technical experts, and this is not a requirement. Because of the mine’s structured approach to tailings management, they have a team of engineers at regional level to manage the technical requirements, allowing them to disseminate their scarce-skill expertise. This is the mine’s team of ‘tailings whisperers’. The engineers are there to implement the technical system, and it branches out from there. There is an overriding philosophy that is a guiding light for this mining company’s tailings management. In the absence of a legal requirement, they will fall back on the framework. Each site has a ‘functional champion’; this person is not necessarily a technical expert, but someone 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 both enforces and informs the design, construction and operation. Because each TSF is different, the framework is broad. It is not an operating manual, but rather a framework that sets out the minimum requirements and certain principles that they want to fulfil. Each site will also then have a site-specific operating manual.

The individual nature of tailings facilities means that the mine cannot be too prescriptive. Because the mine uses a top-down approach to tailings management, the technical teams can provide guidance on how to unpack the principles set out in the framework. The framework also allows each site to work within the regulatory or legal requirements set out by the specific region, while allowing the company to align and manage tailings better. The framework is a best-practice manual, comprised of the best of international standards and guidelines for tailings management. The framework uses elements of ICOLD (International Committee on Large Dams) as well as The Mining Association of Canada (MAC) and South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) and the South African National Standard (SANS), Documents. The framework is dynamic, thus accommodating any new standard or protocol which the company is required to subscribe to.

Good data

There is a changing focus on the risk appetite around tailings management. 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. They believe theirs is an effective system, but it doesn't mean that other mining companies systems aren't as effective.

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 know what to look out for. Knowing what data is important and managing that within acceptable thresholds, is key to managing TSFs.

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