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Floodwave and sediment transport assessment along the Doce River after the Fundão Tailings Dam collapse (Brazil)




Palu, Marcos Cristiano, author
Julien, Pierre, advisor
Thornton, Christopher, committee member
Ettema, Robert, committee member
Rathburn, Sara, committee member

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The collapse of the Fundão Tailings Dam in November 2015 spilled 32 Mm3 of mine waste, causing a substantial socio-economic and environmental damage within the Doce River basin in Brazil. Approximately 90% of the spilled volume deposited over 118 km downstream of Fundão Dam on floodplains. Nevertheless, high concentration of suspended sediment (≈ 400,000 mg/l) reached the Doce River, where the floodwave and sediment wave traveled at different velocities over 550 km to the Atlantic Ocean. The one-dimensional advection-dispersion equation with sediment settling was solved to determine, for tailing sediment, the longitudinal dispersion coefficient and the settling rate along the river and in the reservoirs (Baguari, Aimorés and Mascarenhas). The values found for the longitudinal dispersion coefficient ranged from 30 to 120 m2/s, which are consistent with those in the literature. Moreover, the sediment settling rate along the whole extension of the river corresponds to the deposition of finer material stored in Fundão Dam, which particle size ranged from 1.1 to 2 μm. The simulation of the flashy hydrographs on the Doce River after the dam collapse was initially carried out with several widespread one-dimensional flood routing methods, including the Modified Puls, Muskingum-Cunge, Preissmann, Crank Nicolson and QUICKEST. All of these methods presented unsatisfactory results, with prediction errors in peak discharge up to 44%, and differences in timing to peak up to 5 hours. A new and more accurate one-dimensional flood routing approach was then used, solving the full dynamic equation into an equivalent diffusive wave format and reformulating the hydraulic diffusion coefficient in terms of the Froude number and floodwave celerity. The numerical solution to this new approach was implemented using Crank Nicolson and QUICKEST schemes. The error in predicted peak discharge along the Doce River was reduced to 2%, and the maximum difference found in time to peak was about 1 hour. Regarding sediment transport, a comprehensive one-dimensional numerical model is developed, coupling the new floodwave propagation algorithm with the numerical solution for advective sediment transport and settling. One of the main features of this model is the ability to simulate the propagation of the floodwave and sediment through the entire Doce River extension with or without reservoirs. A sensitivity analysis showed that a hypothetical decrease in water temperature from 30°C to 5°C would have resulted in a concentration 13 times higher at the outlet. In addition, without the presence of hydropower reservoirs on the Doce River, the sediment concentration at the basin outlet would have been 70,000 mg/l instead of the observed 1,600 mg/l. Finally, a simplified numerical model based on the Doce River measurements can simulate the hypothetical collapse of 56 tailings dams in the Doce River basin to estimate the potential impact on the water supply for the towns along the river. Those simulation results show that tailings dams located in the Piracicaba basin, a Doce River sub-basin, have the highest potential to adversely impact the water supply of the downstream towns due the volume stored and proximity with populated towns. Ultimately, the collapse of the biggest dams in this sub-basin could affect approximately 1,000,000 people for several days.


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Doce River
Fundão Tailings Dam
transport of suspended sediment
floodwave propagation
dam break
one-dimensional advection-dispersion equation


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