A view of the tailings ponds at Agnico Eagle’s LaRonde mine in Quebec. Courtesy of Agnico Eagle

With the COVID-19 pandemic upending the way mines conduct operations, as well as the not-so-distant memories of high profile tailings dam disasters such as Mount Polley and Brumadinho still in the public’s mind, miners have had no choice but to adapt and look for new solutions to continue effective dam monitoring during this crisis.

In an e-mail communiqué to its members, Catrin Bryan, president of the Canadian Dam Association (CDA), offered suggestions to dam owners that have had to alter their operations to support measures such as social distancing and quarantining. However, while mining companies face the same challenges as dam owners during this pandemic, the nature of tailings dams and the remote locations of many mine sites pose their own unique challenges. 

“Owners continue to perform critical dam safety monitoring (particularly associated with critical controls) while also implementing special procedures that include social distancing, disinfecting and screening of staff as they arrive on site,” Bryan wrote to CIM Magazine. “These steps can be particularly challenging for mines with remote camps and that require air travel.” As well, the implementation of quarantines for employees arriving on site has also made it more difficult for those responsible for monitoring tailings dams to monitor for lengthy stretches of time.

Tailings facilities are different from normal dams in that they are constructed or raised at the same time that tailings are being deposited, Bryan said, as opposed to water dams that are constructed prior to reservoir filling. As such, constant monitoring of active tailings storage facilities is paramount when it comes to mitigating the risks present when adding additional material to the dam.

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The solution, according to Bryan, is to focus on the fundamentals of dam safety described in the CDA guidelines, even for companies that haven’t put in place an effective strategy for environmental monitoring during the COVID-19 crisis.

“It is never too late to implement or improve dam safety monitoring, and dam safety management is always subject to continuous improvement initiatives,” she wrote.

A big part of those initiatives includes the use of technology that can help circumvent the disadvantages posed by COVID-19 safety measures. Remote cameras, unmanned aerial vehicles and remote satellite data uploaded from monitoring instruments allow employees to see the tailings dams without the need to leave quarantine or go outside. One example Bryan points to is the use of trail cameras connected to cellular networks that send photos of spillways periodically so that they can be inspected for debris accumulation without sending someone to the site.

Once companies take steps to implement these measures, they’ll have to work to integrate them into their regular procedures alongside all the other responsibilities that come with operating a mine. As part of its guidelines, the CDA encourages dam owners to review their plans for emergencies and unusual events and how they will be implemented with the pandemic staffing restrictions.

The COVID-19 crisis is still ongoing, and mines are coming to terms with a situation where operating activities can be suspended at a moment’s notice if there’s an outbreak. However, with proper planning, companies can avoid a situation where a suspension won’t affect dam monitoring at a site.

“Suspension of mining does not eliminate dam safety responsibilities,” Bryan wrote. “Monitoring and emergency planning activities remain essential for safe performance regardless of the mine’s operating status.”