1 April 2020

More information on the Luming Mine tailings leak in China, including images of the disastrous downstream impacts

Posted by Dave Petley

More information on the Luming Mine tailings leak in China, including images of the disastrous downstream impacts

In a very useful comment to my original post about the Luming Mine tailings leak yesterday, loyal reader James Turner has highlighted an article, in Chinese, on the jmcd56.com website that reports upon a press conference held by the operators of the mine yesterday that provides more information about the event.  The key passage is as follows (this is a tidied up, Google Translate version of the key points):-

Feng Kuiyang, director of Yichun Emergency Management Bureau, said at a press conference that the leak has not been sealed, but the flow rate at the leak has been greatly reduced. According to the analysis of emergency experts, there is no hidden danger in the tailings dam.

Feng Kuiyang said that when the danger occurred, there were four kilometers of road leading to the No. 4 spillway. Due to the climatic conditions during the spring melting period, large machinery could not reach the No. 4 spillway, and plugging was difficult.

At 12:00 on March 29, the construction of a 2 km mountain road was basically completed … Using a combination of manpower and machinery, the organization forces captured 5,000 bags of weathered rocks and sand [corrected from the original – see comments], and prepared 400 tons of cement, and then transported them back to the vicinity of the leak with a forklift.

On March 30, at 4:00 in the morning, the site was close to the leak point, and a 720 square meter plugging operation surface was completed. However, as the needs of the plugging operation could not be met, the headquarters decided to continue to expand the operating area and carry out dredging operations near the leak point on the morning of March 30 to create plugging conditions and ensure that machinery and equipment might reach the overflow well. 4 near the leak point. Due to the collapse of the ice caused by the leak, the leak point was buried, and it is currently impossible to accurately determine the leak point.

At 7 am on March 30, the leak point has been basically determined, and de-icing work has begun.

At 14:00 pm on the 30th, the surroundings of the leak point were cleaned up, and according to the plugging plan, an attempt was made to put the filling material into the leak point of the overflow well 4. Due to the complex topography and geological structure of the leak site, an attempt was made to prevent the secondary disaster due to the plugging process.

So what can we take from this?  The report indicates that the problem is with a spillway, but I suspect that this might be a terminology or translation error.  The Google Earth image of the dams in question do not appear to show conventional spillways:-

 Luming Mine tailings leak

Google Earth imagery of the site of the Luming Mine tailings leak.


I assume therefore that drainage from the tailings ponds was being achieved through pipes located in or around the tailings dams.  It appears that one of these structures has failed, generating the leak.  This appears from the Planet Labs imagery I posted yesterday to be on the northern abutment of the southern tailings dam, but this needs confirmation.  Unfortunately cloud has prevented the capture of updated imagery.

The jxbbs website also has an article about the Luming Mine tailings leak.  This refers to “No. 4 overflow well” rather than a spillway, which seems to support my hypothesis above.  Perhaps most interestingly, it also provides two images of the downstream damage caused by the Luming Mine tailings leak, both taken on 29 March 2020:-

Luming Mine tailings leak pollution

Pollution released by the Luming Mine tailings leak in China. Image from http://www.jxbbs.cc.


Pollution released by the Luming Mine tailings leak

Pollution released by the Luming Mine tailings leak in China. Image from http://www.jxbbs.cc.


Both of these image demonstrate that the environmental damage caused by this tailings leak is very substantial.  Yet again the failure of one of these facilities has caused high levels of impact.  At risk of sounding like a broken record, I will once more note that the failure rate of these facilities is utterly unacceptable given the impacts of failure.

The Independent Expert Engineering Investigation and Review Panel for the Mount Polley tailings dam failure made the following observation:

The Panel does not accept the concept of a tolerable failure rate for tailings dams. To do so, no matter how small, would institutionalize failure. First Nations will not
accept this, the public will not permit it, government will not allow it, and the mining industry will not survive it.

It is time that the industry learnt from this important conclusion. Tailings dam failures increase when commodity prices decline.  This does not bode well for the next couple of years.