This piece is a commentary. The views expressed are the author’s own.
The author argues that in the case of the Samarco mine disaster, “there was no alarm alerting neighbors of the danger, and no contingency plan.”
According to the author, and based on Brazil’s Secretary of the Environment of Minas Gerais, Samarco had been fined six times for breaking environmental laws before the accident.
Samarco is a joint venture between two mining companies, BHP Billiton Brasil Ltda. and Vale S.A., currently ranking as the 10th largest exporting company in Brazil.
For five years, it was heralded as Brazil’s best mining company by the magazine Exame, which has a long-running annual review of over 3,000 companies in Brazil. The company made investments in 2014 that allowed it to increase productivity by 37%.
But data suggests their productivity expanded at the cost of environmental safety.
On November 5, a tailings dam operated by Samarco burst, causing an avalanche of 2.2 billion cubic feet of mud and mine waste. The mine failure destroyed the city of Bento Rodrigues, killed 16 people and hundreds of domestic animals, and left more than 600 homeless and millions without water. There was no alarm alerting neighbors of the danger, and no contingency plan. Within a day, the waste had poured into one of the largest rivers on Brazil’s Atlantic coast, the Doce, and began the long 421-mile trip downstream. Two weeks later, the plume of toxic mud reached the Atlantic and a number of coastal marine reserves.
Soon after the disaster, concerned Brazilian scientists created a group called GIAIA (Grupo Independente para Avalicacao do Impacto Ambiental or Independent Group for Environmental Impact Evaluation) to conduct independent analyses of the environmental situation. In a few short weeks ,GIAIA reached 6,800 members, the Facebook fan page has more than 12,000 followers and $23,000 in donations was raised essentially via crowdfunding. GIAIA follows an open science model and comprises not only scientists from various research institutes and universities, but also people in general supporting a citizen science initiative, all of them volunteers.
Meanwhile, the government formed a special commission of 22 state representatives in Minas Gerais to study the disaster. It was revealed that nineteen of those representatives had received support from mining companies in their election campaigns.
After the disaster, the Brazilian government took actions that were distinctly mining-friendly. President Dilma Rousseff signed a decree to designate any dam-related accident to be a natural, not man-made, disaster. This allows workers make use of a special fund paid by their employers that can be put only towards natural catastrophes, job loss, or retirement.
The Special Commission of National Development approved a draft law that streamlines environmental licensing for strategic dams that will benefit economic growth. These laws make up the so-called the “Mining Code” which is about to be voted on by the Brazilian senate. Much of the new code was found to have been written by the lawyers of major mining companies. Twenty-five days after the dam burst, the Brazilian government froze funding to its environmental agency, IBAMA, making it impossible to carry out inspections to other dams until December 31. Soon afterwards, IBAMA’s president heralded a future in which companies would carry out their own environmental licensing.
From the beginning of the disaster, Samarco has maintained that the waste was not toxic. The Brazilian National Water Agency confirmed this, reporting that water and sediments collected from six sites had not become contaminated. However, the Public Ministry of Minas Gerais State also tested the river water, and found higher-than-permitted levels of heavy metals. GIAIA released the interim results of their independent analysis of the river water, which found levels of heavy metals above permitted. In a second report released on December 15, the National Water Agency compared current levels of metals in the river with those measured in 2010, and concluded that there is no difference. The agency argues that while levels of Arsenic, Manganese and Iron are above permitted levels, they are the result of naturally occurring deposits in the region. Its methodology and statistical significance, however, are controversial.
Bowker Associates, a company based in Maine that conduct risks analysis and assessments, has classified the accident as the largest in history, based on the volume of the waste, the area affected, and the estimated cost of the damage of $5.2 billion. As of now, Samarco will receive five fines from the Brazilian goverment totaling $64 million.
According to the Secretary of the Environment of Minas Gerais, Samarco had been fined six times for breaking environmental laws before the accident. Five involved serious infractions for failing to allow inspections and for operating without proper licenses. The cases were tabled after the fines were paid. The first three cases were reported in 2005, when the company broke pollution laws and installed new projects without a proper license. In 2006, the company was fined for dumping pollutants in a creek. Then, in 2010, the company received its largest fine ($100,000) for the same, recurring problems. And last year, Samarco reported that it would add tailings totaling 5% of the dam’s capacity, but Brazil’s National Department of Mining has shown that it actually added 28%, therefore overloading a dam that was already operating at its maximum capacity.
Are Arsenic, Manganese, and Iron levels high in the region for natural reasons, or because of long-term pollution due to mining activity? The accident wouldn’t have happened if effective environmental oversight had been put in place ten years ago, when the problems started. Instead of investing in better oversight, the Brazilian government is moving ahead with plans to streamline the licensing process. By sweeping toxic mining waste under the rug for a decade before the disaster hit, Brazilian politicians now have to answer to their long, sad history of standing up for big industry and poisoning the people they represent.
Renata Leite Pitman is the Research Associate of the Center for Tropical Conservation at Duke University. Carla Bantel, Rominy Stefani, and Viviane Schuch from GIAIA, as well as Nigel Pitman from the Field Museum of Natural History, also contributed to this commentary.