The safety of about 130 tailings dams in WA with an upstream design similar to the Vale dam that failed in Brazil two weeks ago is managed well through design and regulation, according to experts.

The Vale dam, the collapse of which is likely to have killed more than 300 people, was constructed by the so-called upstream method also used in the Samarco dam that failed three years ago.

University of Queensland Professor David Williams said tailings dams were built progressively from a starter dam that catered for the first few years of production.

The dam wall height was then lifted in later years by either using the existing tailings as a foundation — the upstream method — or by extending the dam wall away from the tailings — the downstream method. The centreline method had elements of the other two methods.

Professor Williams said the upstream method was cheaper because the dam wall required less material.

It was useful if there was a shortage of material for the wall or not enough room to extend the wall outwards.

He said the upstream method worked best in a warm and dry region and when the dam wall height was not lifted too quickly.

“You rely on the climate drying the tailings that you place so that you can build on top of them,” he said.

The professor of geomechanics said he could not say what caused the recent disaster in Brazil but the area’s heavy wet season would make upstream lifting more difficult.

In March 2018 a tailings dam wall built using the centreline method collapsed at Newcrest’s Cadia gold mine in NSW and tailings flowed into a lower tailings dam.

Newcrest spokesman Chris Maitland said the lower dam had since been strengthened as a precaution and both dams are subject to real-time monitoring.

A review into the cause of the collapse by an independent board of experts set up by Newcrest is expected to be completed in March.

Professor Williams said it would be a kneejerk reaction to ban the upstream method in Australia because of the Vale disaster. “There is always room for improvement, but compared to some other jurisdictions I think we do pretty well in Australia,” he said.

Department of Mines, Industry, Regulation and Safety mines safety director Andrew Chaplyn said there were more than 800 tailings storage facilities in WA and about 130 were built using the upstream method.

Mr Chaplyn said a rigorous design process was required that included the site layout, climate, drainage, the potential for the tailings to liquefy and consideration of worst-case dam breaks.

Additional measures were required for the minority of dams close to people and infrastructure.

He said the department reviewed documents and inspected dams to verify compliance with the requirements.