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Dam holding mining waste collapses in Brazil

The mudslide near Brumadinho via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

The mudslide near Brumadinho via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

  • The collapse of a dam in the state of Minas Gerais in Brazil on Jan. 25 left at least 58 people dead and hundreds missing.
  • The dam held the waste by-product of iron ore mining from a nearby mine run by a company called Vale.
  • Vale was involved in another dam collapse in 2015 — called Brazil’s worst environmental disaster — that resulted in criminal charges for several of the company’s leaders and nearly $100 million in fines.
  • Critics of mining practices say that the recent failure of the dam shows that authorities should step up the enforcement of regulations in Brazil.

The collapse of a dam in southeastern Brazil has killed at least 58 people and left hundreds more missing as they were buried by a wave of toxic mud.

The dam, which held the waste by-products, or tailings, from the extraction of iron ore at the Córrego do Feijão mine, was set to be decommissioned soon, according to news reports. But when it failed on the afternoon of Jan. 25, the resulting rush of muddy sludge caught workers off guard, many of whom are still reportedly missing. The cascade swallowed structures and roads, as well as a bus full of people, according to Al Jazeera, before skirting the town of Brumadinho and surging into the Paropeba River where there are early reports of severe environmental damage.

It’s the second such disaster for Vale, the company that runs the Córrego do Feijão mine, in a little over three years. In November 2015, 19 people were killed when another tailings dam burst near the town of Mariana, also in the state of Minas Gerais. The resulting contamination of the Doce River from the release of potentially harmful heavy metals found in iron ore tailings had been called Brazil’s worst environmental disaster; 19 died.

Now, critics of the company and mining industry practices say the recent breakdown near Brumadinho demonstrates that the industry has not corrected course, despite criminal charges brought against Vale’s leaders and $92.5 million in fines.

The onrush of muddy water after the dam broke destroyed structures and swallowed roads and vehicles. Image by Jeso Carneiro via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Avimar de Melo Barcelos, the mayor of Brumadinho, told the BBC that Vale was “careless and incompetent.”

“This tragedy destroyed our city,” de Melo Barcelos said.

Fabio Schvartsman, who has led Vale since 2017, apologized for the dam’s failure in a television interview, but he stopped short of accepting blame, the Guardian newspaper reported.

“I don’t know who is responsible, but you can be sure we’ll do our part,” Schvartsman. Two days after the collapse, the company and rescuers said that 305 people were still missing.

A car swallowed after the collapse of a dam near Mariana in 2015. Image by Senado Federal via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).

Schvartsman told a Brazilian television station that experts had signed off on the 43-year-old structure’s stability.

“I’m not a mining technician,” he said on television, according to the BBC. “I followed the technicians’ advice and you see what happened. It didn’t work.”

Greenpeace laid the blame for the incident on companies like Vale, as well as the Brazilian government. Nilo D’Ávila, campaigns director for Greenpeace Brazil, called the crumbling of the dam “a sad consequence of the lessons not learned.”

Satellite imagery shows the contaminant plume flowing from the Doce River into the Atlantic Ocean after the collapse of a Vale-run dam in 2015. Image by Gunnar Ries via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

“Unfortunately, economic groups with strong lobby among Brazilian Congress insist on loosening the rules of environmental licensing,” D’Ávila said in a statement. “Cases like this, therefore, are not accidents but environmental crimes that must be investigated [and] punished.”

Paulo Sotero, who directs the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, told Al Jazeera that, while Brazil’s regulations can be onerous, he expected the country to respond to the disaster. Sotero said that enforcement remains an issue.

“[T]he laws are pretty good,” he said, “but they are not enforced and we see once again a demonstration of this kind of irresponsibility.”

Banner image of the mudslide near Brumadinho via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Citation

Gleekia, A. M., & Sahu, H. B. IMPACTS OF IRON ORE MINING ON WATER QUALITY–A COMPARATIVE STUDY OF INDIA AND LIBERIA.

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