Alternative technology and tailings dam disasters – by Jax Jacobsen (The Ecologist – March 2019)

Jax Jacobsen is a mining and energy journalist, and a regular contributor to Mining Magazine. She has also written for Canadian Institute of Mining Magazine, Natural Resources Magazine, the Montreal Gazette, and other publications. In 2013-2016, she was S&P Global’s Canadian mining correspondent.

Brazil witnessed its worst ever mining disaster earlier this year, after Vale’s tailing dam in the Brazilian town of Brumadinho in Minas Gerais collapsed without warning.

Estimates tag the number of deaths at 142, while nearly 200 remain missing. Hundreds were evacuated this week near the dam area of another mine in Minas Gerais as a precaution.

This tailings dam collapse comes less than four years after another devastating tailings mine disaster destroyed the town of Samarco, also in Brazil, also managed by Vale (though in a joint partnership with BHP). The Samarco tailings dam failure killed 19, and caused widespread environmental destruction through the state of Minas Gerais.

Tailings technology

Tailings dam disasters have not been limited to Brazil. The Samarco incident came only a year after the tailing dam at Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley copper and gold mine in British Columbia breached. Though no deaths were recorded, the tailings spill was one of the largest ever recorded in history.

Since 1970, there have been over 70 major incidents of tailings dam breaches and collapses. Despite this, there is very little indication that future tailing spills will be averted, due to the nature of the industry and the technical difficulties in finding viable alternatives to storing mine waste.

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