2019 – In Defence of Upstream Tailings Dam Construction

John Phillips, Laila Burger

The majority of Australian tailings dams over the last 100 years have been successfully built using upstream construction. However, recent major tailings dam failures in some countries have led to a global industry wide review of the design and management of tailings storage facilities, with a focus on the upstream raise method as a common factor for some failures. As a reaction to the recent failures, there is the potential for regulations to become more restrictive and the potential for unjustified pressure on existing and new mines to rule out upstream raising due to possible safety and failure risks.

This paper looks at whether it is the upstream construction method or other more fundamental issues that have led to these failures and examines whether such issues are equally relevant in Australia. Does Australia have a specific advantage in being able to successfully use upstream tailings dam construction or are we fooling ourselves?

The topic of upstream tailings storage is a subject of broad and current interest and the lessons learned from historic failures are rightfully leading to improvements. Implementation of good practice starts with the overall management structure that guides how tailings dams are designed, constructed, operated and closed.

Critical design practice involves understanding the unique site conditions, properties of the tailings and management of tailings placement, as the tailings form part of the overall retaining structure. Good practice during operation of upstream tailings dams is key to reducing the risk of tailings dam failures and the success of safe and sustainable closure.

This paper presents key features of both good and bad practice for the upstream raising of tailings dams and discusses how the design and operation can be made more resilient to ensure the safety of the community and infrastructure. It concludes that upstream raising can be a safe and economical method of tailings disposal if designed, constructed and operated correctly.

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