Friday, August 12, 2011

What is a mining tailings dam?

You've probably heard of tailings dams before and many are concerned about their environmental impact. These areas are often considered by some people as more environmentally damaging than the mining activities themselves. But what is a tailings dam?

To understand this question one must first understand that all types of mining activities produce a form of tailings. Basically tailings are just the left-over material once the mineral or material being sought is removed. A tailings dam however, is a structure constructed to contain left over materials (usually quite fine) and water used and generated during the extraction process, and meant to allow the materials to settle out during its storage period. Tailings dams are also known to contain additives, which are chemicals used during material processing to aid in the extraction of the relevant mineral(s). It is commonly believed that many of these additives are the "problem", due to their potential toxicity to both the environment and people. 

Well, now we know what they are, do tailings dams truly pose environmental risk? It certainly seems that historically mining tailings dams (throughout the world) have had impacts on aquifers, downstream water systems and local communities. And it does seem in terms of quantity alone (compared to the amount of mineral extracted) tailings are a heavy burden on the landscape. However, I think to determine the true impact of these "dams", it will be important to examine each of the processes, as obviously each mineral requires a different extraction process and in turn will have their own environmental and social impacts.

Stayed tuned, unless you have the answers earlier. 
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