When you see the headline “sea of mud” in the press here, you automatically think it is a story about corruption. But this time the headline was not a metaphor, but a fact. A sea of mud, from a burst dam full of iron ore tailings and mining waste had engulfed an entire village, in a tsunami of sludge, water and waste.
The dam, which is operated by the Samarco mining company, is located near Mariana, in Minas Gerais. People and animals were swept away, houses had disappeared, the bucolic green landscape of the hills and valleys in this part of the state vanished under a thick brown layer of toxic mud.
34 -year-old Edna Aparecida Euzebio described to a reporter what happened when the dam burst and she saw a wall of mud and water roaring through the village at 4 o´clock in the afternoon:
“I saw people running down the street. They shouted, Edna, the dam has burst. When I looked, I saw the mud coming and the dust rising. Despair hit me, I rushed indoors and grabbed my children, a one-year-old, and a four-year-old, and ran into the street with them. Then I saw a lorry, full of children. The people on it were grabbing the children, who were being thrown up to them. It was full, everyone was shouting. Then I got on to the lorry too.”
The lorry drove to the higher part of the village. It was only hours later that Edna found her older daughter, aged 11, who had been at school when the dam burst. Six hundred survivors who have lost their homes are being housed in hotels in Mariana, one of Minas Gerais’ historic towns, or are staying with relatives.
The rust-coloured wave of mud, in some places 15 metres high, then descended into the river Doce – the Sweet river − turning it into an open sewer of toxic mud, dead animals and debris. It all flew downstream from Minas eastward into the state of Espírito Santo, and eventually the Atlantic Ocean.
Several large towns located along the river have now lost their supply of fresh water, and water tankers are being hurriedly marshalled to supply the population, who had begun storing water in buckets and tubs. On the beaches, near the mouth of the river where sea turtles hatch their eggs as part of the internationally acclaimed Tamar project, volunteers hurriedly began moving the baby turtles to safety.
On Wednesday, six days after the disaster, 21 people were still missing, 11 workers at the mining company and 10 villagers, including four children. Six bodies had been found, one of them 100 kilometres from the dam. Scores of firemen searched through the vast expanse of mud which now covers most of the village of Bento Rodrigues, poking long rods into the mud in their search for victims.
Robert Chambers, president of the Centre for Science in Public Participation, which has been monitoring such accidents for a hundred years, says the dam burst was the largest spill ever of its kind, a catastrophe. The mine´s operations have been suspended indefinitely.
The consequences are international, because Samarco is jointly owned by two of the world’s mining giants — Brazilian Vale and the Anglo-Australian BHP Billiton. BHP Billiton´s share prices fell to a seven year low on news of the disaster, apparently because investors are worried about the legal and environmental costs of the disaster, estimated at over US$1 billion, and the losses that will cone from closure of the mine, which could last for four years. Billiton president Andrew Mackenzie is due to fly out to see the damage for himself.
Vale has begun inspecting 115 other similar dams, many of them in Minas Gerais. The exact cause of the collapse of two of the dams in the three-tiered dam complex, which was holding 300 to 400 million tonnes of iron ore tailings, is unclear. It could have been the result of erosion, or of construction to raise the dam walls which undermined their stability, or even of some mild seismic shocks felt a few hours earlier. Inquiries have been started.
A public prosecutor who carried out a study on the dams two years ago, said he had recommended improved safety measures, including a siren for warning the local population, but the company considered this unnecessary, and relied instead on phone calls and text messages.
What is clear is that the dam collapse has led to one of Brazil´s worst ever environmental disasters, with an incalculable death toll of mammals, birds, fish and plants, and much damage to the riparian woods (mata ciliar) along the river banks. The dam contained not only iron ore tailings but also manganese, and possibly arsenic, zinc and copper.
The disaster has led to severe criticism of the lack of regulation in Brazil´s huge mining sector. Internationally, the recent fall in world commodity prices has led to downsizing of staff, and pressures to increase productivity in all mining companies.
Over 100 NGOS, social movements and trade unions signed a statement highly critical of the way the mining industry is run: “Basta! Enough of death, destruction and suffering to satiate the voracity of mining industry! We do not want this economic model that is being imposed on us. “
They criticised the state law drawn up by Minas Gerais governor Fernando Pimentel and being hurried through the assembly “to speed up environmental licencing and to reduce social control over the safety of projects which are a priority for the state, but not for the population of Minas.”
In Brasilia, the national congress is also busy loosening existing regulations and approving a law to allow mining in indigenous reserves and conservation areas. They seem too busy with their own mar de lama (sea of mud) to worry about the victims of the real sea of mud in Minas Gerais.