Enhancing tailings dam safety through geospatial data and prism monitoring

Written by
Brooke Hahn
March 18, 2024

Tailings dams play a crucial role in the mining industry by storing waste materials generated during mineral processing. However, these dams pose inherent risks, with failures having catastrophic environmental and human consequences. To mitigate these risks, continuous monitoring is essential. In recent years, the integration of geospatial data and prisms has emerged as a powerful approach to enhance monitoring accuracy and safety standards.

Understanding tailings dams

Tailings dams, also known as tailings storage facilities (TSFs), are engineered structures designed to store waste materials, or tailings, generated during mining operations. These dams typically consist of a series of embankments constructed using soil, rock, or industrial waste materials. While tailings dams are vital for managing mining waste, they present significant environmental and safety challenges due to the potential for structural failures.

Importance of monitoring tailings dams

Monitoring tailings dams is critical to identify potential instabilities or structural weaknesses that could lead to dam failure. The consequences of such failures can include the release of toxic mine waste into the surrounding environment, endangering ecosystems and communities downstream. Or as was the case in the Brumadinho tailings dam disaster in 2019, a mudslide of about 10 million cubic meters of liquefied tailings flooded the site of the mine, destroying neighboring settlements, taking out a railway bridge, destroying the ecosystem of the Paraopeba River downstream of the mine, and resulted in at least 270 people being killed.

To help prevent such disasters, proactive monitoring strategies are essential, enabling early detection of signs of distress and facilitating timely intervention measures.

Geospatial data in tailings dam monitoring

Geospatial data, encompassing satellite imagery, aerial surveys through drone data capture, and ground-based measurements, offers valuable insights into the condition and behavior of tailings dams. By leveraging remote sensing technologies, mining companies can monitor dam integrity, detect changes in topography, and assess vegetation health in the vicinity of the dam. Additionally, geospatial data enables the creation of detailed terrain models and 3D visualizations, aiding engineers in analyzing potential risks and designing effective mitigation measures.

Prism monitoring systems

Prism monitoring systems represent a sophisticated approach to monitoring structural movements and deformations in tailings dams. These systems consist of optical prisms strategically installed on the dam's surface, along with surveying instruments such as total stations or laser scanners. By regularly measuring the positions of these prisms, engineers can detect even subtle changes in the dam's geometry, providing early warnings of potential instability.

Benefits of geospatial data and prism monitoring

  • Early Warning System: Geospatial data and prism monitoring systems serve as early warning systems, alerting engineers to any deviations from expected dam behavior. By detecting movements or deformations at an early stage, proactive measures can be implemented to prevent dam failures.
  • Enhanced Safety: The integration of geospatial data and prism monitoring enhances safety standards by providing real-time monitoring of tailings dams. This proactive approach minimizes the risk of catastrophic failures, protecting both the environment and nearby communities.
  • Data-Driven Decision Making: Geospatial data and prism monitoring enable data-driven decision-making processes. By analyzing trends and patterns in monitoring data, engineers can identify potential risks and prioritize maintenance and remediation efforts accordingly.
  • Regulatory Compliance: Many regulatory authorities require mining companies to implement comprehensive monitoring programs for tailings dams. By utilizing geospatial data and prism monitoring, companies can demonstrate compliance with regulatory requirements and ensure adherence to industry best practices.
  • Cost-Effectiveness: While implementing monitoring systems incurs initial costs, the long-term benefits outweigh the investment. Early detection of dam instabilities can prevent costly cleanup operations and legal liabilities associated with dam failures, ultimately saving resources and protecting the company's reputation.

Tailings dam monitoring is paramount for ensuring the safety and environmental sustainability of mining operations. By leveraging geospatial data and prism monitoring systems, mining companies can proactively identify potential risks and take timely corrective actions to mitigate them. Utilizing geospatial tech like Birdi for geospatial data and prism visualization and monitoring not only enhances safety standards but also demonstrates a commitment to environmental stewardship and regulatory compliance. As the mining industry continues to evolve, leveraging innovative monitoring techniques will be essential for safeguarding tailings dam integrity and protecting surrounding communities and ecosystems.

If you'd like to learn more about how Birdi can assist you with tailings dam monitoring, book in a demo with us.

Brooke Hahn
Brooke has been involved in SaaS startups for the past 10 years. From marketing to leadership to customer success, she has worked across the breadth of teams and been pivotal in every company's strategy and success.