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Managing Tailings with Modern Technology

Mine tailings can pose significant risks to the environment and human health. These tailings can contain a variety of chemicals, including heavy metals, acids, and other toxic substances, which can leach into the soil and water.

The Brumadinho dam disaster was not just a tragedy, but a wake-up call to the mining industry that poor tailings management can have catastrophic consequences. The collapse of the tailings dam, owned and operated by the Brazilian mining company Vale, unleashed a tidal wave of toxic mining waste, killing an estimate of 270 people, contaminating water sources, and destroying the surrounding ecosystem. While mining is a critical industry that supports global development and economic growth, this disaster was a reminder on how important it is to precisely mointier and manage tailings as their failure poses significant risks to human life and the environment if not managed responsibly.

Tailings management refers to the process of handling and disposing of the waste material generated during mining operations. These waste materials, known as tailings, typically consist of finely ground rock particles and water, and often contain traces of chemicals and metals used in the mining process. Proper tailings management is crucial to minimize the environmental and social impacts of mining, including water pollution, land degradation, and public health risks.

To deal with tailings, mining companies usually create tailings ponds or impoundments, where the waste is stored and allowed to settle before the water is released back into the environment. The remaining solid material is typically compacted or covered with soil to prevent it from being dispersed by wind or water. In some cases, tailings can also be processed to extract additional minerals or recycled for use in other industries.

However, despite these management practices, there are still significant challenges and concerns regarding tailings management. One major issue is the risk of tailings dam failures, which can lead to catastrophic environmental disasters and loss of life. In recent years, there have been several high-profile tailings dam failures, including the 2015 Samarco dam disaster in Brazil and the 2019 Brumadinho dam disaster, also in Brazil, which resulted in the loss of hundreds of lives and extensive environmental damage.

Another challenge is the long-term management and monitoring of tailings facilities after mining operations have ended. Tailings facilities can remain active for decades, and require ongoing maintenance and monitoring to prevent environmental impacts from leaching of contaminants into groundwater or surface water.

Furthermore, there is a lack of standardization in tailings management practices, which can result in inconsistent and inadequate management practices across different mining sites and jurisdictions. This lack of consistency and transparency can make it difficult for stakeholders, including local communities and regulatory agencies, to assess and manage the environmental and social risks associated with tailings facilities.

To address these challenges, there have been calls for improved regulation and oversight of tailings management practices, including the establishment of mandatory safety and environmental standards. There is also a need for increased transparency and communication between mining companies, regulators, and local communities regarding the risks and management of tailings facilities. This includes involving local communities in decision-making processes and ensuring that their voices are heard in tailings management plans. With the advancement of modern technology, one is led to ask …


“Can satellites predict tailings dam collapses and help us prevent them from happening?”

Satellite imagery can be useful for monitoring the physical characteristics of tailings facilities, such as changes in the slope, size, or shape of the waste piles, which can indicate potential instability. Advanced technologies such as LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) and ground-penetrating radar can also provide information about the subsurface structure and composition of tailings facilities, helping to identify areas of weakness or instability.

Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) Satellite, use radar technology to create images of the Earth's surface, which can penetrate through clouds and other obstacles. This makes them particularly useful for monitoring tailings facilities in areas with frequent cloud cover or vegetation. SAR data can provide information on the subsurface structure and composition of tailings facilities, including the location of voids or areas of weakness.

By combining data from these various sources, Ceco’s advanced spatial monitoring dashboards allows mine operators to get the most recent up to date data regarding changes that may be happening within the surface of these tailings. Through this technology, Ceco’s machine learning algorithms develops a comprehensive understanding of the risks and vulnerabilities of tailings facilities, to make better decisions when it comes to managing tailing dams and develop strategies to mitigate them. However it is important to note that many factors can contribute to a tailing failure, including heavy rainfall, seismic activity, equipment failure, or human error, which are all factors that may not be detected by remote sensing technologies alone.

In conclusion, tailings management is a critical aspect of responsible mining practices. While there are established methods for dealing with tailings, there are still significant challenges and concerns, including the risk of dam failures, long-term management and monitoring, and lack of standardization. It is essential that mining companies, regulatory agencies, and local communities work together to improve tailings management practices, establish consistent and transparent standards, and ensure the long-term safety and environmental sustainability of mining operations.

Mariam Abdel Kader
Verified writer

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