The deadly mining disaster that occurred on November 5 in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, destroying countryside and leveling the village of Bento Rodrigues, has now resulted in a tide of toxic mud entering the Atlantic Ocean. The waste has already killed wildlife along the way. Now oceanic fish and loggerhead turtles are at risk.
A trail of death
Contaminated sludge and waste water from the Samarco corporation’s Germano iron ore mining operation near the city of Mariana, BH, traveled some 310 miles (500 kilometers) to the Atlantic coast, devastating forests along the way, according to Brazil’s Environment Minister.
Following the disaster, iron ore waste soon entered the Rio Doce, which has a 33,000-square mile drainage area. Around 230 municipalities, mostly in the states of Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo, rely on the riverbed. The Doce is now contaminated with poisonous heavy metals and other toxins, including mercury, lead and arsenic. Some Brazilian biologists have estimated that it will take around 30 years to clean up the Rio Doce basin. Others believe it will need a minimum of 100 years to dilute the waste to previous levels.
More mines at risk
According to the company that controls the mine, Samarco Mineração SA — actually a joint venture between Anglo-Australian BHB Billiton and Brazilian Vale SA mining companies — two more dams at the site have been at risk of bursting. As of last week, the two dams were operating at a lower than recommended safety, and Samarco claimed it was taking emergency measures to stabilize pressure levels.
Why did the dam burst?
So far BHP Billiton and Vale have still not offered any explanation for how the dam burst on November 5 and have laid sole blame at the feet of the nebulous Samarco.
Yet public investigations have shown that the collapsed dam, named Fundão, increased its load of mud and mine waste from 5 million to 55 million cubic meters between the years of 2012 and 2015. Additionally, before the dam’s collapse, testing showed pressure to be at “emergency levels”.
Fines and cleanup efforts
Brazilian Environmental Agency (IBAMA) has fined Samarco the equivalent of some $66 million for the damage caused by the disaster. Samarco has also agreed to pay $264 million in compensation and towards cleanup efforts.
- Samarco has set up barriers along the banks of the Rio Doce in an attempt to protect wildlife.
- On November 16 Vale announced that it planned to assist in cleanup and in human concerns, including the distribution of millions of liters of water to those affected by the disaster.
- Brazilian prosecutors have announced that should Samarco be unable to cover its fines, damages and the costs of cleanup, that they will pursue Vale and BHP Billiton and hold them accountable.
- The disaster in Brazil has reawakened a debate as to the safety of storing mining waste, which is practiced at some 3,500 mines around the world, according to the US army and the United Nations.
See this video from the Guardian of the contaminated mud entering the Atlantic from the Rio Doce: