Why are Atalaya’s RioTinto tailings dams at risk?

For an introduction to mining waste dams and what happens when they go wrong, read our explainer.

Read our new summary report, published in December 2019, outlining the key findings of tailings dam expert Dr Steve Emerman’s report on Atalaya Mining company’s RioTinto tailings dams.

Mining company Atalaya is listed on London’s Alternative Investment Market – a less regulated market for companies too small to be on the London Stock Exchange. Its Riotinto Mine [formerly owned by, but no longer associated with, Rio Tinto mining company] is an open-pit copper mine in the province of Huelva, Andalusia, southern Spain. The mine currently processes 9.5 million metric tons of copper ore per year with plans to expand to 15 million metric tons per year.

Elena Solis

The mine waste is stored in two tailings ponds or reservoirs – these are named Cobre and Aguzadera reservoirs. These two reservoirs are confined by a tailings dam, although they also share a common dam wall. Excess water from the tailings reservoirs is pumped into a third reservoir, the Gossan reservoir, behind a third dam. Since the Cobre reservoir is upstream from the Aguzadera reservoir and the Gossan reservoir is upstream from both tailings reservoirs, the three dams could fail in a chain reaction – like dominoes.

The summary report Why are Atalaya’s RioTinto tailings dams at risk? has been written by LMN researcher Richard Harkinson. It aims to summarise and contextualise a detailed report by tailings dam expert Dr Steve Emerman’s report, entitled Risk Analysis of the Tailings Dams at the Riotinto Mine, Andalusia, Spain”.

Following numerous tailings dam failures, the most notable recent disaster being Brumadinho tailings dam collapse on 25th January 2019, in Brazil, this summary explains how Dr Emerman’s report came about and how it fits into present developments in Spain, the EU and worldwide that we urgently need to engage with.

PDF of Tailings dams: an explainer

PDF of the summary report

PDF of the full report

Read also Ecologistas en Accion’s report on Speculative Mining in Spain to put the RioTinto mine casestudy into a wider context of mining in Spain and the EU.