When most people think about mining disasters they think of explosions and trapped miners. However, mining disasters come in other forms too. For example, recently near Ajka, Hungary, an aluminum mining sludge pond broke through its dyke and flooded the local communities with a toxic red sludge. Emergency preventive maintenance measures went into effect immediately to neutralize the acidity and toxins before the sludge reached the Danube River.

Residents of the 3 local communities were not so lucky as over 24 million metric tons of the poisonous chemical sludge inundated three villages, killing nine people and injuring over a hundred. In addition, it has been reported that all fish in the local rivers leading to the Danube were killed off. Unfortunately, The exact cause of the dyke’s failure in Hungary has not yet been determined.

What are Sludge and Tailing Ponds?

Mining has long been a major resource for the USA and it is estimated that there are thousands of active or abandoned tailing/slag/sludge ponds throughout North America. These ponds or impoundments are the result of leftover mining materials. They are constructed to hold the wastewater containing the leftover materials from the mining process in order to allow for sedimentation and/or reprocessing. From coal to minerals to precious metals, these mines are located in every state.

Common Mining Leftovers

Tailing and sludge ponds can be active or leftover from a closed mining operation. Even if a pond has dried up, there is still a potential threat if the toxins start leaching into the groundwater or if the sediment is somehow dislodged into waterways or communities. These ponds often contain very deadly poisons from the minerals, elements or additives used such as:

  • Arsenic
  • Fluorite
  • Radioactive materials (Common in many ores)
  • Mercury
  • Sulfur
  • Hydrocarbons from oils and grease used in mining
  • Cyanide
  • Sulfuric acid
  • Activated carbon
  • Calcium

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that bad things happen when over a million cubic meters of poisons breaks through the walls of the bond and heads to town. This makes inspections of sludge ponds imperative in order avoid a disaster.

Could an Accident Happen Near Your Community?

Any natural or man-made containment area is subject to failure as a result of natural deterioration, severe weather, accident, neglect and even terrorism. Although they do not normally receive the same amount of attention as a catastrophic explosion or natural disaster, these ponds are not small and can be devastating as a result of their long term poisoning consequences. Some notable coal slurry (sludge) disasters include:

  • 2008, Kingston Fossil Plant in Roane County, TN – over 1.1 billion gallons of toxic waste (101 times the Exxon Valdez) spilled after heavy rains. The spill covered the surrounding land with up to 6 feet of sludge as made it to 2 Tennessee River waterways resulting in a massive fish kill and drinking water contamination.
  • 2000, Martin County Sludge Spill – over 306 million gallons was released into several rivers after an impoundment broke into an abandoned mine that came out of mine openings. It polluted 100 miles of stream, killing everything in the streams all the way to the Ohio River
  • 1972, Buffalo Creek Flood – An impounded dam broke killing 125 people, injuring over 1,000 people and damaging or destroying homes in 7 towns following heavy rains.
How a Mining CMMS Can Mitigate Risk

Altogether, there have been over 20 major tailings dam failures in the USA over the last 30 years. The cause in most cases is attributed to heavy rains, corrosion, construction failures or the unrepaired cracking of the holding walls.

Although storms contributed to many of the accidents, almost all of the sites had a history of continual maintenance and repair problems. When you consider that abandoned mining ponds are probably totally neglected then it becomes clear that a Computerized Maintenance Management System (CMMS) for inspections and preventive maintenance is necessary to avoid another disaster.

The reasons CMMS software for mining makes an effective solution for mining ponds new or old is because a CMMS can make sure adequate inspections are scheduled on a regular basis. This will identify potential problems such as leaks, corrosion or unusual signs of damage. Work orders can then be prioritized to be scheduled in the most cost effective manner.

Top 5 Reasons to use a CMMS to Monitor Mining Ponds/Impoundments

Inspections are not the only benefit from implementing a mining CMMS. Other significant benefits are:

  1. Avoiding a catastrophe that can cause billions of dollars in damage to property and the environment. This occurs because asset and maintenance managers will always know the condition of ponds, when they were last inspected and the work that was or needs to be done.
  2. CMMS documents work requests, work orders and repair history. This has multiple benefits by itself that include;
    • Proof of diligence that can lower liability claims based on neglect by establishing a reasonable and fixed maintenance schedule.
    • Enabling management to better plan proactive maintenance based upon the frequency and type of repairs being performed.
  3. CMMS helps manages capital requirements by identifying corrosion or potential dam failure causes early when they are treatable/repairable.
  4. CMMS solution helps avoid unplanned emergency repairs as well as lowers unplanned labor costs.
  5. Preventive maintenance lengthens the useful cycle of assets decreasing long term capital replacement costs.

No one wants a wall of sludge or toxins cutting a path toward their home, community or water source. CMMS software give communities and businesses a greater piece of mind when implemented properly. Best of all the low cost of a CMMS solution is negligible compared to a catastrophe.