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Tailings dam failure at the Cadia-Ridgeway Mine in Australia

Tailings dam failure at the Cadia-Ridgeway Mine in Australia

Mar 14th, 2018

We learned last week about a tailings dam failure at the Cadia-Ridgeway Mine in Australia.

Tailings dam failure at the Cadia-Ridgeway Mine in Australia

Wall failure of the Tailings Storage Facility at Cadia Valley Operations. Photo by Newcrest Mining.

We are going to discuss a few points we know as they relate to Tailings Dams Risk Management.

What we know about the tailings dam failure at the Cadia-Ridgeway Mine in Australia

In the late afternoon of Friday March 9th , Cadia identified a limited breakthrough of tailings material at its northern tailings dam embankment as shown in the press release they produced.

This tailings release remained contained within the southern tailings dam.

The Cadia tailings dams were reportedly the object of regular inspections, reviews and monitoring. They have also been fully certified to industry standards by independent third parties.

As a precaution Newcrest stopped depositing tailings into both dams on March 9th . They stated:

  1. We have secured the area around the tailings dam, and have implemented a comprehensive geotechnical monitoring system.
  2. We are actively engaging local landholders and residents downstream of the tailings facility, keeping them informed about what has occurred.
  3. The tailings material is a slurry of finely ground rock, water and a low level of benign processing re-agents.

What we do not know about the tailings dam failure at the Cadia-Ridgeway Mine in Australia

We actually do not know anything beyond the summary above, but it is not important for today’s discussion as we want to focus on tailings dams’ seismic analyses.

We do not know how the engineers evaluated the dams at this mine from a seismic point of view. It is public knowledge that the mine temporarily closed last year after a magnitude 4.3 earthquake hit. Furthermore, reportedly, a couple seismic events occurred in the region prior to last week failure.

We also know that forensic investigators/independent expert panels oftentimes invoke the possibility of “minor quakes” as triggers of tailings dams failures. For example for the Samarco tailings dam, the panel found that three small seismic shocks “triggered” the collapse. The panel also indicated the dam’s failure was reportedly “already well advanced”, caused by a string of design and maintenance failures.

Common practice for seismic pseudo-static analyses for tailings dams would be to:

  • follow jurisdictional codes,
  • look at the Maximum Credible Earthquake -MCE-, or some code imposed level,
  • select the corresponding Peak Ground Acceleration -PGA- and finally
  • perform pseudo-static stability analyses with that PGA (or a fraction of it, as defined by codes)
  • ensure the dam attains a code-imposed Factor of Safety -FoS- under those conditions.

Let’s note the minimum FoS under those conditions may be as low as 1.1.

Tailings dams risk management considerations

The approach described above is absolutely common and trusted without hesitations by basically any engineer and regulator we know.

Let’s take a big risk here (pun intended) and question that credo.

So, assume for a minute a considered dam is designed for a 1/2500 earthquake, with a corresponding PGA of 0.075 (g) and the selected 50% PGA value as horizontal acceleration. The 50% “rebate” is allotted because the foundation soils are of good quality without really wondering how localized geological variations may influence that quality.

For the sake of this discussion we have calculated for this blogpost the downstream slope FoS for the:

  • static case, ensuring it was code compliant
  • 1/2500 earthquake ensuring again it was code compliant and finally also
  • 1/100 earthquake, which, by the way has only a PGA of 0.012 (g). The codes do not ask for this probability and do not impose a FoS value.

With a code compliant dam we proceeded to calculate the probability of failure for the three cases above (pfstat, pf1/2500 pf1/100).  The probability the FoS will be smaller than 1 is used as the probability of failure. This is a simplification, as the mathematically correct formulation is a bit more complicated.

We used two different approaches for the evaluation.

Now comes the big point of this discussion. Actually, the static case occurs “every year”, right? But the 1/2500, well, in first approximation does occur “only” 1/2500. Please forgive us for this gross approximation and remember that two 1/2500 quakes are always possible in the same year….

The same for the 1/100 quake…. etc.

What that means is that actually the probability of failure under seismic event is a conditional probability equal for example to pf1/2500 divided by 2500 and respectively pf1/100 divided by 100.

Here is a graphic showing the results of the specific example we have discussed. Note it may not apply as a general rule!

What the graph above shows is that if one looks at the annualized probability of failure, the smaller events may give a higher annual probability of failure than the larger ones!

The implications for design are simple: one has to check the dam slope for high frequency, less intense events.

That may be a way to avoid what happened to many dams that actually failed.

Contact us to learn how we can do this analysis with your engineers.

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Category: Probabilities, Risk analysis

5 responses to “Tailings dam failure at the Cadia-Ridgeway Mine in Australia”

  1. It looks more like a successful multiple containment rather than a failure. The seismic analysis seems reasonably robust and applicable, and it makes sense that multiple small events lead to the seismic analog of fatigue failure. As B. Ulrich comments, the minimal ponding is excellent management. Looks like superb subaerial deposition, with the failure escarpment attesting to relatively low moisture within the tails deposited near the embankment. This is not a failure, it’s a maintenance annoyance. This looks like an example of how diligent design, construction and management keep seismic events from becoming massive failures. Well done, I’m going to go pour a glass of Yellow Tail!
    – Ralph Sacrison, Elko, NV USA

  2. M Shabbir says:

    Subject Happens due to Environmental issue regarding Blasting Zones making underground Settlements like Caves, Sink Holes, Crack Routes, develops time by time at different Stages same as Earth Quick going on,
    So need to prevent from such cases Mining Area must be fore-away at a long distance to escaping the Dam locations for its long life working & Efficiency.

  3. kannan says:

    what is it capacity and height

  4. Peter says:

    Psuedo Static analysis are not accepted most informed regulators.

  5. Tim says:

    The above analysis may be true for some engineered structures but generally for upstream tailings dams the higher intensity events are more critical as they can cause liquefaction or a reduction in shear strength (as the shaking induces increased pore pressure). The higher the PGA the lower the resistance to liquefaction and higher the induced pore pressures.

    As Peter above pointed out many regular are moving away from the fairly blunt approach of pseudo-static analysis and are requiring post seismic analysis and / or dynamic finite element analysis based on insitu testing to determine the shear strength and liquefaction potential.

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