At least 65 people have been killed and 305 are missing after a tailings dam was breached at Córrego do Feijão, one of Vale’s iron ore mines in the southeast Brazilian state of Minas Gerais on Friday 25 January. Many of the dead and missing are workers who were eating in a cafeteria at the site when the tidal wave of sludge engulfed them.
Aerial photos reveal the drama of the inhabitants of Brumadinho. Video: Portal UAI. Published 25/01/2019
The collapse of the Brumadinho Dam. Video: Portal UAI, em.com.br. Published 25/01/2019
The Fire Service of Minas Gerais publishes dramatic aerial images of the disaster at Brumadinho. Video: Corpo de Bombeiros Militar de Minas Gerais. Published: 27/01/2019
The vast wave of toxic effluent and mud surged through Brumadinho, close to the famous Inhotim outdoor arts centre and about 60km from the state capital Belo Horizonte. The disaster is the second the company has been involved in in just over three years.
Dramatic footage showing a further collapse at the site of the Fundão tailings dam. Video: em.com.br. Published: 01/02/2016
In November 2015, near the town of Mariana in the same state as Friday’s disaster, the Fundão tailing dam collapsed and the flooded the village of Bento Rodrigues with toxic substances and mud, killing 19 people. The dam was built for the Germano iron ore mine, co-owned by Vale and BHP Billiton. The environmental impact was disastrous as around 60 million cubic meters of iron ore tailings flowed into the Doce River. Hundreds of riverside inhabitants were displaced.
On Sunday 27 rescue operations at Brumadinho had to be suspended for a while as concern mounted that another tailings dam would collapse.
Save the São Francisco river
Responding to Friday’s disaster, some of the Mariana victims sent out an urgent action appeala on WhatsApp, which reads:
‘Pay attention: lots of people are asking how they can help. Right now there are lots of volunteers helping in Brumadinho. But the bigger tragedy is yet to come. If this mud reaches the São Francisco river we will have a completely dead river, as happened to the Rio Doce [downstream of the disaster at Mariana].
‘The São Francisco river crosses [5 states of] Brazil and it will be an ecological disaster of unprecedented proportions both for the environment and for the communities who live along the banks of the river.
‘In the short term, the only thing to be done is to sacrifice the hydroelectric plant at Retiro Baixo, operated by FURNAS, in order to save the São Francisco. Retiro Baixo should be kept closed. That could contain the mud flow, at least for a while. Later, medium-term solutions can be put in place to contain the tailings. But if these reach Três Marais, nothing can be done.
‘So this is the time to shout out to the authorities to close Retiro Baixo and prevent the mud from reaching Três Marias. If everyone just stays silent we will see the same thing repeated as happened to the Rio Doce, when they failed to close the sluices at the Risoleta Neves hydroelectric plant and allowed the mud to reach the sea.’
It appears that FURNAS has responded. The Retiro Baixo plant was closed soon after the Brumadinho disaster, but resumed operations the following day. But on 28 January the company stated that it would close down Retiro Baixo, on the Paraopeba river, as the sediments from Brumadinho were expected to reach it within a week and could damage the turbines. Closure of this plant should help to protect the São Francisco river and the Três Marias dam, below the point where the Paraobeba river joins it. It is hoped that the reservoir will be large enough to contain the tailings sludge which reaches it.
Minas Gerais is a state rich in minerals and full of mining projects, as its name suggests. Vale, the Brazilian company that owns the mine is the fifth largest mining company by revenue in the world. It was founded in 1942 as a state owned company, but was privatized in 1997.
Luiz Jardim Wanderley, a mining specialist at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, told AFP that there is ‘a tendency for companies, in that period of commodity prices falling, to cut safety and maintenance budgets.’ He added that, of the 450 dams in Minas Gerais state, ‘we have a relatively high number of dams that are doubtful or in inappropriate conditions.’
On Sunday, people were gathered in a centre set up by Vale to support families of the dead and injured, just outside the town of Brumadinho. One woman, Daniela Fernandes de Oliveira, said her husband was inside the restaurant that was crushed on Friday by the breached matter.
‘They all knew the dam could break,’ she told the Financial Times. ‘The same thing that happened with Mariana happened again. Are they never going to learn? Mariana was the first one, Brumadinho the second. Will there be a third? A fourth? It’s unbelievable.’
Scant hope of justice
In anticipation of significant compensation packages the Brazilian authorities have frozen 11bn reais ($3bn) of Vale’s assets to be used to eventually pay victims and their families. It remains to be seen how long this measure will be maintained and whether it exerts any real pressure on the company. Vale’s shares shed 8% per cent in trading following news of the dam rupture
The Mariana disaster in 2015 is still a hugely controversial event, with claims that the companies involved and the government have abandoned the communities effected. Vale and its partner claim to have paid out over $6bn so far, and there are several lawsuits still happening.
However, a LAB correspondent who travelled to the area in December 2018, reports ‘all the atingidos [the victims] have had so far is a monthly minimum wage stipend at best, no sign yet of proper indemnification settlement. And there has been a huge struggle over who qualifies as atingido, which is still going on.’
According to MAB, the Movement of those Affected by Dams, a number of towns and villages below Mariana still rely on tanker lorries for drinking water because the Rio Doce remains contaminated.
On 29 January, MAB announced that it has succeeded in having the mining company removed from the process to register who will be eligible for compensation at Brumadinho. This process was to be carried out by Sinergia, a company closely associated with Vale, and whose decisions had been extremely controversial after the Mariana disaster.
As for Vale being prosecuted for negligence, the correspondent continued, ‘the criminal case has been mired in delays and there is little hope it will achieve anything anyway, as the up to 500 defence witnesses vastly outnumber the 50 or so for the prosecution.’ The case is being run by only one federal judge despite being hugely complex.
Brumadinho may change this situation. ‘Given that this is the second dam burst linked to Vale, we would expect more stringent remediation requirements and tougher penalties,’ wrote Macquarie Capital analysts. Brazil’s vice president, Hamilton Murão, said that those to blame should be punished, and a top prosecutor said executives could be held personally responsible. Five people, three of them Vale employees, have since been arrested.
Given the parlous state of Brazil’s judicial system, locals and victims have scant expectations of justice. On Monday 28, demonstrators daubed ‘murderers’ on the walls of Vale’s headquarters in Rio de Janeiro.
Vale is the world’s biggest miner of iron ore. The growth of China’s economy and its infrastructure programs have used millions of tonnes of iron ore — which produces steel — from Brazil.
Brazil itself is home to a number of communities resisting mining operations. In the Amazon, indigenous communities are trying to force government to curb garimpeiros, wildcat gold miners, whose work has led to poisons polluting the water supplies as well as the wider environment. They are also resisting the construction of more hydro-electric dams on the Amazon’s major tributaries, justified in part by the government because of the power requirements of the mining industry.
Far-right president Jair Bolsonaro has said he will open up the Amazon to agribusiness and mining in a new blitz for domestic and foreign corporations.
In early 2020 LAB is to publish a special report on resistance by local communities to massive mining projects throughout Latin America. Titled No Bonanza, the book will trace the efforts of Observatorio de Conflictos Mineros de América Latina (OCMAL) and other grassroots organizations to hold big national and international mining companies to account.