An investigation of the Brumadinho Dam Break with HEC-RAS simulation

Student: Arun Raman
Table: ENG1602
Experimentation location: Home
Regulated Research (Form 1c): No
Project continuation (Form 7): No

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The Brumadinho dam disaster occurred on the 25 January 2019 when Dam I, an upstream tailings dam at the Corrego do Feijao iron ore mine, 9 kilometers (5.6 mi) east of Brumadinho, Minas Gerais, Brazil, suffered a catastrophic failure. Over 248 people died and over $2.88 billion worth of property were lost or damaged due to the subsequent mud flow and flooding. This is merely 4 years after the previous Mariana dam break affecting over 1 million people downstream due to iron ore mining waste flowing into river basin. To prevent a similar tragedy from reoccurring, it’s useful to examine the cause of the Brumadinho dam break and compare observations with model simulations. HEC-RAS, developed by US Army Corps of Engineers, is used to model the mud flow from the Brumadinho dam break based on the NASA SRTM elevation dataset over Brazil. The extent of the mud flow from the HEC-RAS simulation matches the actual flooding due to the dam break. This simulation technique can later be used for future dam collapse predictions.


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Recent failures of tailings dams, such as Mount Polley in Canada in 2014 and Samarco’s Fundao facility in Brazil in 2015, have attracted the public’s attention and brought the safety of tailings dams to the forefront of community concerns. Aggressive pro-development policies that lessen mining licensing requirements and fast-track mineral exploitation lead to severe environmental risk where around 230,000 mining dams are examined and 45 of which could collapse immediately. A new upstream tailings dam failure just occurred in Brazil near Nossa Senhora do Livramento, where tailings from gold mining were stored, causing power failure and loss of telephone services in countless homes. As a result, dam break study is a budding and active field of research that can help to prevent human life and property damage. Early work by Wahl [12] evaluated the performance of three embankment dam breach models SIMBA developed by USDA-ARS, HR-BREACH at HR Wallingford, Great Britain, and FIREBIRD BREACH at Montreal Polytechnic. The study is intended to provide an evaluation of modelling technologies that can be integrated with state-of-the-art dam failure flood routing and inundation analysis tools.

Research Questions and Goals

The primary goal of the research in this thesis is to study the flow of water in a tailings dam break and analyze the causes of one through modelling with flow analysis software (HEC-RAS).

The tailing dam failure is modelled as a dam-break problem in which the dam is broken sequentially.


The Digital Elevation Map (DEM) of the Brumadinho area was made available by NASA’s Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM). This mission produced global 1 arc-second, or about 30 meters resolution, topographic data sufficient for the Brumadinho dam break simulation. The distance between the Brumadinho dam and Paraopeba river, the primary area where the flooding simulation is carried out, is approximately 9 km which is the main area. The European Petroleum Survey Group (EPSG) code 29101 projection correctly geo-references the DEM to Google Satellite images over Brazil. A 2D flow area is set up with a 50 meter by 50-meter cell size resolution, resulting in a computational mesh with 2258 cells to carry out the shallow water equation calculations. A storage area is set up to store the mud with a 2D flow area and storage area connection in between to represent the dam.

Risk and Safety


Data Analysis

Flow-model analysis was done using in HEC-RAS to solve the shallow water equations. These data were compared with the true flow path obtained from Google Earth.


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