- One year ago, the collapse of the Fundão tailings dam killed 19 people and polluted the entire 663-kilometer (441-mile) length of the Rio Doce with 40 billion liters (over 10.5 billion gallons) of toxic mud tailings. It is the worst environmental and mining disaster in Brazil’s history.
- At the end of October, federal prosecutors charged 22 executives and four companies (Samarco, Vale, BHP Billiton and VOGBR Consultancy) for their role in the disaster that occurred in Mariana town, Minas Gerais state.
- The 272-page federal complaint includes numerous internal company documents that appear to show that Samarco knew of the threat their tailings dam posed to public safety, but did little to address the worsening problem.
- These internal documents went so far as to estimate the deaths likely to be caused by the dam collapse. Samarco’s estimate of 20 or more deaths was just one above the actual total of 19 people killed. The complaint also lists damage to commercial fisheries (14 tons of dead fish), to forests and communities.
Federal authorities have released their findings regarding the Fundão tailings dam collapse in a massive and damning report that comes on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the event. Prosecutors charged 22 executives and four companies for their role in the disaster that occurred in Mariana town, Minas Gerais state.
The 272-page complaint prepared by the Federal Public Ministry (MPF) offers a vivid account of the country’s largest environmental tragedy, an event that caused the death of 19 people.
The official MPF document traces the story of the failure of the colossal corporate dam that released 40 billion liters (over 10.5 billion gallons) of toxic mud tailings, devastating wildlife, vegetation, properties and 663 kilometers (441 miles) of river, before reaching the Atlantic Ocean. That disaster, says the report, is ongoing, with another 4 billion gallons of mud continuing to seep from the ruined dam.
The companies charged include Samarco (the dam’s owner), along with parent companies Vale and BHP Billiton, all of which are accused of qualified homicide with eventual intent (where there is no intent to kill, but taking the risk of causing death).
Also charged with qualified homicide are 21 of the 22 people named by the MPF prosecutors. Among the accused Samarco executives are CEO Ricardo Vescovi (on leave of absence since two months after the disaster); general director of operations Kléber Terra; and three operations managers. Accused too are five Vale and BHP employees, and 11 members of the Samarco board of directors, all appointed by Vale and BHP.
Among the board members accused are five Brazilians, two Americans(Margaret McMahon Beck and Marcus Philip Randolph), one British citizen (Stephen Michael Potter), one French citizen (Jeffery Mark Zweig), one South African (James John Wilson), and one Australian (Antonino Ottaviano).
Samarco, Vale and BHP Billiton are accused of 12 environmental crimes. A fourth company, VOGBR Consultancy, is accused, along with its senior engineer, Samuel Santana of presenting a false report on the stability of the dam.
“Accused had knowledge of the dam’s problems”
“When analyzing the gathered material — including company documents and reports by the federal [environmental crimes unit] and civil police — it is clear that the accused had knowledge of the dam’s problems and consciously decided to neglect the safety of the structure,” public prosecutor José Adércio Leite Sampaio told Mongabay.
The MPF task force coordinator noted that Brazilian laws regulating mining dam safety are relatively weak and “full of loopholes.” Federal and state inspections are minimal, and companies are left to determine what risks tailings dams might present to the public and the environment. “The [government] doesn’t inspect all existing dams in the country, but works by sampling. Only 2 percent of the large dams are inspected annually by the environmental agencies,” the public prosecutor said.
Minas Gerais has 317 tailings dams (47 percent of the country’s total), according to the National Water Agency. “In that state, the National Department of Mineral Production (DNPM) works with only two technicians for the field work,” explained Sampaio. “Due to that lack of [inspectors], the DNPM bases its reports on the dam owner’s self-declaration.”
According to the geotechnical literature, the construction method used by Samarco at the Fundão site is the cheapest and more unstable of all existing tailings dam models. “This kind of embankment for tailings dams should not be allowed anymore in Brazil,” Sampaio stated flatly.
Through its press office, Samarco told Mongabay: “The Minas Gerais State Secretary for the Environment and Sustainable Development (Semad) and the DNPM didn’t have a regular frequency for inspections of the Fundão dam. Our independent and international consultants checked the structure three to four times per year, depending on the professional or company hired.”
Samarco officially responded to the charges against it by saying that it “refutes the MPF accusation, which dismissed the company’s defense and testimonies presented during the investigation, proofs that it had no prior knowledge of the risks to [the dam’s] structure.”
Vale also “rejects the complaint of the MPF, which [chose] to disregard the evidence presented [by the company] that shows the absence of any prior knowledge of real risks to [the] Fundão dam by Vale, by its executives and its employees, [and] tries unfairly to give them some form of unacceptable responsibility at all costs.”
When contacted by Mongabay for this story, Vale responded that their spokesperson wasn’t available for interview. VOGBR CEO André Euzébio said by email that the company would not give a statement.
Problems from the start
While Samarco and Vale — the world’s largest iron ore producer — claim they did not know about the real dangers that the Fundão dam faced, the company documents obtained by the Federal Public Ministry appear to show otherwise. Errors seem to have been made from the start of the project, and negligence also seems to be in evidence.
“[D]ocuments show that, since the planning phase, the companies and employees accused were already aware of the existence of geological faults in the region,” says the MPF complaint.
One document listed in the complaint is the geological and geotechnical survey report conducted by the Pimenta de Ávila consulting company, entitled: “Erosive process and restoration work on Dike 1”. MPF notes that: “On September 22, 2008, Samarco obtained its operating license. In December, it began the deposition of tailings. However, at the beginning of operations, Samarco identified a malfunction in the dam. During an inspection, held between December 1st and 5th, 2008 by Andrew Robertson, an international consultant hired by Samarco, he identified serious evidence responsible for the poor functioning of the main internal drainage devices from the main levee system. It was found [that poor drainage led to increased and] improper accumulation of water in the reservoir of Dike 1.”
More damning evidence follows: “In the [Samarco board] meeting of 07/22/2009… the accused counselors heard reports from the Samarco directors (among them, [then operations and sustainability director] Ricardo Vescovi) about the problems of the Fundão dam. The board expressed concern about the effectiveness of the proposed solution and [asked] Vale’s dam management team to work on their behalf. ”
But apparently, those efforts were ineffective in being carried out: “In September 2014, Samarco engineers met with consultant Pimenta de Ávila to discuss the slipping of the massif [a precursor to the earthen dam’s collapse].”
An inspection report of the tailings disposal system dated September 4, 2014 notes that: “several transverse cracks on the crest of the massif… [were observed by] the Samarco inspection team. The cracks characterize a beginning of [a] slipping motion of the pile massif, and Samarco immediately built a reinforcement landfill at the foot of the slope indentation,” to deal with the problem.
Another Samarco internal document, entitled: “Samarco Manual Corporate Risks” clearly shows the company was aware of the trouble at Fundão: “The risk identified… for the year 2015, [include] geotechnical structural disruption and disorders that may occur in the day-to-day operations [of several Samarco dams]. Included in that risk are the tailings disposal and water structures of: Fundão, Santarém, Germano, Matipó, Norte Ubu, Cava de Germano and Muniz Freire.”
On the matter of “Health and Safety”, the Samarco Manual of Corporate Risks shows that the company had identified the possible consequences of a Fundão dam collapse: “> 20 fatalities. Permanent disabilities (> 30% of the body) in over a hundred people.”
The Federal Public Ministry complaint notes that: “The accuracy of the [internal Samarco] document gets to be shocking!”
An account of the destruction
The MPF complaint offers grisly details of the aftermath of the dam’s collapse. So great was the tremendous force of the flood of toxic mud that human body parts were found up to 43 miles away from where some of the 19 victims died. The body of one deceased man Edmirson José Pessoa wasn’t recovered until very recently. The former Samarco employee had been working near the dam when it failed, around 3:30 pm on November 5, 2015.
According to the MPF, the flood of tailings mud reached and impacted 39 towns in two states.
Bento Rodrigues, a town that sat just three miles below the dam, suffered the worst impacts, and no longer exists. It had 585 residents at the time of the disaster and saw about 80 percent of its 257 buildings destroyed.
“In the race for life, the majority of people had no time to save any belongings, being forced to flee to higher ground where they could not be dragged by the mud,” read the MPF report.
Of the 195 rural properties struck in Minas Gerais, 25 were completely devastated, according to the complaint. The Secretariat of State for Regional Development, Urban and Metropolitan Management of Minas Gerais noted that hundreds of homes were destroyed, along with schools, churches, plazas and chapels.
“Damage to human health is felt to this day, especially in Mariana and Barra Longa towns. In the latter, there was a 1,000 percent increase of demand for medical care, with constant complaints from the drying of the [toxic] mud in the region, [which has] still not [been] removed,” read the MPF document.
Damage to fauna and flora
In the aftermath of the Samarco disaster, 14 tons of dead fish were collected along the Doce and Carmo rivers. The iron ore and silica mud also caused “the destruction of habitats, killing, among others, crustaceans and other aquatic animals; slow land creatures, such as snakes, turtles, frogs and [their] off springs; animals that lived in burrows or nests dug in the soil; insects, arachnids and annelids.”
“The maritime area of the affected region, the north coast of Espírito Santo state, is part of one of the most important sites of sea turtle breeding,” the report noted. “Two endangered species spawn there, the loggerhead (Caretta caretta) and leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea).” This coastal area is the only place the leatherback turtle breeds in Brazil. In addition, “The tailings spill… destroyed breeding areas of freshwater shrimp, [while aquatic] species [that were] carrying eggs [were left] in a state of respiratory distress.”
The Atlantic Forest, one of the most threatened biomes in Brazil, also saw significant damage. Protected forests were damaged or destroyed; that damage included primary forest and secondary vegetation in middle and advanced stages of regeneration.
Last week, Brazil’s O Globo newspaper reported that the proposed resumption of mining activities by Samarco in the region has been a matter of serious disagreement between it and the company’s owners, Vale and BHP Billiton.
Vale CEO Murilo Ferreira has declared that the resumption of mining by Samarco is not feasible due to its current use of upstream tailings dams. But Vale director of corporate integrity, Clóvis Torres, earlier defended the quick return of Samarco operations. The company “is completely stagnant and needs to generate again tax money, employment and wealth,” he declared. This latter opinion is also shared by Fernando Coelho Filho, Brazil’s Minister of Mines and Energy. He stated that Samarco may have its license reviewed in order to return to operation in early 2017.
In November, the MPF will likely make recommendations for needed changes to improve dam safety regulations to both the Congress and the Ministries of Mines and Energy and the Environment.
In regard to the litigation process against the companies and accused individuals, federal prosecutor Sampaio was guarded over the next steps: “The current stage of the case is very complicated. We now [await] the official reply of the accused.”