A responsible approach to business is an imperative in the mining industry. As operators strive to meet demand for metals and minerals, leading companies are making breakthroughs by applying digital technologies to improve productivity and achieve a “zero harm” environmental, health and safety record.
However, a tailings1 storage facility (TSF)—typically a dam built to hold waste generated from mining operations—if not properly managed, can present a significant risk. As the recent event in Brazil reminds us, all tailings storage, both active and disused, requires ongoing management. Mining companies recognize this need, and the International Council on Mining & Metals (ICMM) with input from industry leaders is currently developing an international standard for tailings facilities to establish the key elements necessary for safer management of TSFs.2
Unfortunately, more stringent TSF regulations and forthcoming standards cannot fully mitigate dam failures, especially when the structural integrity of dams around the world is in question. There are at least two significant TSF failures per year—reportedly directly or indirectly due to poor data about the dam as well as inadequate governance, monitoring and management.3 And the rate of failure appears to be increasing, with an estimate of up to 19 serious tailings facility failures occurring between 2018 and 2027, if there are no changes to laws, regulations and industry practices—and without using new technologies to substantially reduce risk.4
Digital technologies bridge the gap
In the last 20 years, exponential developments in mobile technologies, satellite data, connectivity, data storage and artificial intelligence (AI) have made these digital tools both available and affordable. Mining companies can pair industrialized use of these technologies with industry innovation and leading practices to enable access to relevant data and generate valuable, actionable insights that improve decision-making while significantly reducing risk and cost.
Tailings dam failures are seldom the result of a single action or mechanism, but rather a failure of a system—and 80 percent of these causes5 are controllable (see Figure 1). Many failures are due to inadequate slope integrity resulting in instability and wall fractures. However, the most common cause is overtopping as a result of overfilling or filling at a rate that the dam is not designed to tolerate, often after heavy rains.
CLICK TO ENLARGE FIGURE 1
Through the strategic use of digital technologies, mining operators can enable continuous remote surveillance of a global network of TSF dams using mobile, Internet of Things (IoT)-enabled devices, connected sensors, satellite data and video feed from drones or fixed points. Companies can analyze this near real-time data for patterns in TSF conditions related to use and aggregate the information with other data from disparate sources (including production, processing, weather conditions, hydrology, hydrogeology, geotechnical/structural measurements and seismic events) to build predictive models, monitor foreseeable TSF hazards and mitigate potential exposures.
These data-driven insights improve a mining company’s proactive maintenance protocols to help manage safety risks and enable an appropriate education and transparency program with the mining workforce and local communities. In the event of a potential TSF emergency, it can even spur quick action through a digital alerting system using social media platforms and mobile technology to help save lives and protect the environment.
Today’s digital technologies can help mining companies improve their TSF management practices and meet their societal and regulatory responsibilities.
Embedding intelligence into tailings management
An effective tailings management solution can help mining operators develop proactive onsite or remote TSF monitoring. At Accenture, we tailor the solution for each individual mine site and integrate it with current processes and controls, using digital technologies to capture field data about the TSF through multiple sources, such as aerial mapping, on-the-ground sensors and surveys, satellite mapping and drones. This process can significantly reduce the time required to inspect tailing sites on an initial and ongoing basis, as well as enable swift and decisive action where required.
By assessing baseline conditions, the technology landscape both onsite and within the company, and current TSF management practices, mining companies can address gaps in data visibility, improve the decision-making process with onsite teams and better comply with regulations using near real-time digital data reporting.
Using collected data, advanced analytics (i.e., AI and machine learning) can be performed to generate key business insights, indicate TSF risk levels and provide recommendations for mitigating actions. The TSF management workforce can view intelligent and intuitive visualizations to enable effective and timely decision-making processes for dam maintenance. Recording corrective actions and updating models accordingly help to further minimize risks.
Additional approaches for TSF management
Mining companies face additional challenges when it comes to TSF management. Three of these challenges plus some suggested solutions include the following:
- Unknown design and construction: Survey the inherited TSF through geophysical techniques such as ground penetrating radar or satellite imagery. This will help determine a baseline and create a digital model.
- Insufficient geological understanding: Start by drilling to sample the underlying geology. Then, use geophysical surveys to identify risks (such as an underlying clay layer), increase structural integrity of the TSF to help mitigate environmental impact and monitor identified hazards and potential risks.
- Lack of integrated operations and scenario modelling: Deploy a system that provides “one source of the truth” across the mine. This allows for the integration of data from disparate sources including geology, geotechnical engineering, production, processing, weather conditions, hydrology and hydrogeology.
Of course, these solutions—both technological and operational—are most valuable when they align with an organization’s culture and workforce strategy. For instance, companies can encourage multidisciplinary accountability for TSF management by redefining tailings waste management roles and responsibilities across departments (geology, planning, production, processing, HSEC6). Together, these teams can generate shared targets, measure key performance indicators and conduct collaborative reporting and reviews. Furthermore, since money is an effective motivator, cross-department bonuses for achieving TSF mitigations can also be put in place.
Operating responsibly for a safe outcome
Improving TSF management practices, organizational approaches and corporate governance are achievable goals for the ongoing success of a mining operation—and for the mining industry to meet its societal and regulatory responsibilities. The intelligent digital technologies that can make these goals a reality are available today. Mine operators should act now to leverage these technologies to make business-critical strides toward zero harm for all, including the workforce, communities and surrounding environment.
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1 Tailings Management, International Council of Mining & Metals (ICMM), https://www.icmm.com/en-gb/environment/tailings.
2 "ICMM commits to create an international standard for tailings dams," February 26, 2019, ICMM, https://www.icmm.com/en-gb/news/2019/international-standard-for-tailings-dams.
3 “100 years 289 tailings dams failures history,” October 13, 2016, Riskope, https://www.riskope.com/2016/10/13/100-years-289-tailings-dams-failures-history/.
4 "World mine tailings—from 1915,” https://worldminetailingsfailures.org/.
5 "Hundred years of lessons learned in tailings dams failures," February 22, 2017, Riskope, https://www.riskope.com/2017/02/22/hundred-years-lessons-learned-tailings-dams-failures/.
6 HSEC is an abbreviation for Health, Safety, Environment and Communities.