21 feared dead after dam disaster in Brazil — Is mining a negligent industry?
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21 feared dead after dam disaster in Brazil — Is mining a negligent industry?

On November 5, a dam burst at a large iron ore mine in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, releasing a 30-foot wave of water, mud and mining waste towards the village of Bento Rodrigues.

The surrounding countryside and area were inundated by the slurry. Several other villages in the path of the burst dam were also adversely impacted by the resulting mudflow, originating near the city of Mariana.

After days of search and rescue efforts, 21 people remain missing, including both local residents and workers at the Germano mine. A total of 631 people have been displaced and up to 300,000 are still without water due to the accident, one of worst of its kind in Brazilian history and the largest mine-dam disaster in history, according to experts.

The below footage captures the moments when the dam ruptured, releasing some 60 million cubic meters of sludge and mine waste:

State prosecutors cite negligence

On November 10 public prosecutors announced that negligence most likely played a roll in the disaster, resulting in death, injury and environmental destruction, devastating homes, businesses and infrastructure in the process.

The Germano mine, is a 50-50 joint venture — known as Samarco Mineração SA — between Anglo-Australian mining company BHP Billiton and the formerly state-owned Brazilian mining giant Vale. So far neither company has commented on a possible cause for the dam’s failure, yet state prosecutors and Mariana town officials pointed to evidence that Vale was dumping mine waste from its other regional iron ore mines into Samarco’s waste reservoir, overburdening the dam.

A 2013 report commissioned by the office of the state prosecutor found that the location of the mining waste could be problematic for the structural stability of the dam.

From the Wall Street Journal:

The report had already highlighted the fragility of these structures and the necessity of an increased rigor in monitoring them. No operation of this size just breaks without warning.

—State prosecutor Carlos Eduardo Ferreira Pinto

Brazilian lawmakers are pushing for a new mining code with stricter regulations to prevent future accidents like the one at Germano, while environmental activists, journalist and local officials are criticizing the response of the companies behind Samarco.

Vale only released a 5-sentence statement a full day after the disaster, referring questions to Samarco, which is increasingly being viewed by the public as a front for the mine’s true owners. Mariana’s mayor claimed that both Vale and BHP Billiton shared responsibility for the accident and that Samarco is just a name “made up” by the two giant multinationals.

Popular journalist Míriam Leitão, who writes for O Globo, Brazil’s second-largest newspaper, has been critical of both companies for their responses to what happened in Mariana and what she believes to be their negligent behavior. She also pointed out how Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff has failed to visit the site of disaster.

From Leitão’s column on November 10 (author’s translation):

Mining operations all over the world have a series of procedures, which have been consolidated long ago, in order to prevent and mitigate disasters. In this case, it has been revealed at every step of the investigation, that the companies were negligent in terms of disaster prevention and failed to show that they have a plan of action prepared in case of a disaster.

Though she has not visited Mariana, President Rousseff has expressed concern that the toxic chemical-infused mud from the dam could reach the Rio Doce, a large river in the region.

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