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Specter of tailings disaster looms after spill at Canadian firm’s Brazil mine

  • A spill from a pond at Canadian company Equinox Gold’s mining site in Brazil’s Maranhão state disrupted water supplies for some 4,000 residents and stoked fears about the potential failure of its tailings dam.
  • Residents say the spill is just the latest in a litany of problems they attribute to the mine, which include structural damage to their homes, air and noise pollution, and water contamination.
  • The company attributes the spill to unusually heavy rains; denies any links between its detonation activity and damage to residents’ homes; and says all the paperwork and certification for its tailings dam are in order.
  • Its tailings dam is nearly identical to one operated by Vale, Brazil’s biggest miner, in Minas Gerais state, which failed catastrophically in 2019, killing 270 people.

On March 25, water from a pond owned by Canadian miner Equinox Gold spilled over its embankments in the Brazilian state of Maranhão amid heavy rain. The water flowed into local rivers, leaving the 4,000 people living near the mine without any potable water. It also raised fears that the mine’s main tailings dam could rupture, as has happened with other dams further south in the state of Minas Gerais.

The Maranhão state environmental regulator (SEMA) dispatched inspectors to the Aurizona mine in Godofredo Viana municipality in the wake of the incident, while Brazil’s National Council for Human Rights has sought clarification from Equinox over the incident.

Equinox manages mines throughout the Americas. Its Aurizona mine, operated by local subsidiary Mineração Aurizona S.A. (MASA), can produce up to 130,000 ounces of gold per year, making it one of the largest mining operations in Brazil. Since March 26, the day after the spill at its Lagoa do Pirocáua pond, it has supplied drinking water to the affected communities through tanker trucks, it says. It also says that since the incident, the supply of water to the area has been fully restored. Residents, however, say there’s still no running water in the taps or that any water that comes out smells bad, is greasy, and is reddish in color.

A month after the spill, the Military Police arrested two protesters from the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB) who had demanded the normalization of the water supply in the city. MAB alleges that the water supply is contaminated and has caused health problems in the population.

Residents also attribute a range of other problems to Equinox since it began operating there in 2010. These include cracks in their houses, with the structures reportedly compromised due to the constant explosions inside the mine; air pollution from mining waste, blamed for respiratory problems; noise pollution; and contamination of water resources in the region. The fear is constant, says Daiane Souza, an Aurizona resident.

“Since the mining company came here, it has been humiliating the community,” she says. “We don’t sleep well. Our houses were not designed to withstand the impact of the pumps day and night. The damages to the residents are many.”

More than the spill at Lagoa do Pirocáua, which is an auxiliary structure, residents say they fear the potential failure of the mine’s large tailings dam, the Vené dam, which holds back the mining waste. “That is the biggest concern. If this dam breaks, it will kill everyone. When it rains, we can hardly sleep,” Souza says.

Equinox has attributed the spill at Lagoa do Pirocáua to unusually heavy rains that hit the region.

Jonias Pinheiro, a resident who worked for a few years at Equinox, says the company has nevertheless caused enormous socioenvironmental damage to the community. “The company brings more harm than good. Several absurd things happen here and the mining company needs to be held accountable for them,” he says.

Flood resulting from the spill from the pond at the mining site. Image courtesy of the Aurizona community.

Cozy relations with state government

In 2018, tailings from a sterile waste pile — the mountain of earth dug up and set aside from Equinox’s mining activity — slid, isolating the community. Tadzio Coelho, a professor at the Federal University of Viçosa in Minas Gerais who studies gold mining in the region, says the monitoring and licensing of Equinox’s Vené dam have serious problems.

The company’s emergency action plan, for example, does not even acknowledge the thousands of people living in the vicinity of the dam. The company also never carried out simulations of a breach of the dam, which is a necessary step in drawing up contingency plans to respond to an actual emergency.

Coelho says the problems at the Equinox operation aren’t surprising, considering the industry’s bad track record of damage caused and lack of transparency. He says the whole project should be subjected to a new licensing process, especially for the Vené dam. The current volume of the reservoir is 11.6 million cubic meters (410 million cubic feet) of tailings, similar to a dam that failed catastrophically in Brumadinho municipality, Minas Gerais state, in 2019, killing 270 people. That dam was operated by Vale S.A., Brazil’s biggest miner, which was also responsible for another deadly tailings dam failure, in Mariana municipality, Minas Gerais, in 2015.

Equinox says its own dam “has all its documentation and stability certificate up to date,” having been inspected March 31 by a team from the country’s National Mining Agency. In response to complaints about damage caused to residents’ homes by its explosions, Equinox said it “carries out controlled detonations for dismantling at its facilities, within the legal and technically permissible parameters.” In 2019, an independent engineering firm hired by the miner concluded that “there is no relationship between the detonations and the residents’ complaints.”

SEMA, the Maranhão environmental regulator, said in a note that it has “adopted inspection, control and monitoring measures to mitigate the environmental and social damage caused by the rupture of the slope at Pirocáua.” It added that it has “reviewed all the environmental permits issued and monitored all the licensing processes of the company,” in addition to imposing a preliminary fine of 10 million reais ($1.9 million) on Equinox.

But critics say the Maranhão state government maintains close ties with the mining company. At the end of 2019, for instance, Deputy Governor Carlos Brandão attended the inauguration of a major project at the Equinox complex, representing Governor Flávio Dino.

At the time, Brandão talked about “the great relevance of the enterprise for the social and economic development of the region in harmony with the preservation of the environment.” He said the Maranhão government “guaranteed legal and political security for the expansion of this enterprise,” which, according to him, would represent “more development and quality of life for the people.”

The state government has also participated directly in the venture, signing a partnership that ensures the expansion of Equinox’s activities. During the signing event, Christian Milau, CEO of Equinox Gold, said the company was “very happy” with the relationship with the local community. “Our commitment is to collaborate with the growth of the place where we are, supporting initiatives that bring benefits to the people, and being an environmentally responsible mining company,” he said.

Banner image of the village of Aurizona in the foreground and Equinox Gold’s tailings dam in the background, courtesy of GEDMMA.

This article was reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and first published here on our Brazil site on May 5, 2021.

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