On Friday, a dam associated with an iron ore mine in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais breached, unleashing a torrent of water and mine waste into the Paraopeba River. So far, 58 people are confirmed dead, with hundreds still missing and large part of the nearby mining town of Brumadinho buried in sludge. The incident is a humanitarian disaster and some worry an environmental crisis as well, reports Diane Jeantet of The Associated Press.
Marcia Reverdosa and Emanuella Grinberg at CNN report that heavy rains led to the dam collapse which occurred on Friday while most of the roughly 300 employees at the Córrego do Feijão mine were on their lunch break. The deluge of iron ore contaminated water and sludge flooded the mine and administrative area at the base of the dam. Continuing rain slowed down search and rescue efforts, and yesterday the search was halted and 3,000 people were advised to evacuate when authorities feared another nearby mining dam might also fail. That dam, however, was found to be secure and rescue efforts were resumed and are ongoing.
The incident is frustrating for locals and conservationists following a similar breach that happened in 2015. In that event, another dam operated by the Brazilian company Vale along with Australian firm BHP Billiton also collapsed in Minas Gerais near the city of Mariana about 75 miles from Brumadinho, the AP reports. That collapse killed 19 people, dislocated hundreds, killed thousands of fish and left 250,000 area residents without drinking water. The 2015 breach released over 2 billion cubic feet of mining waste, which flooded local rivers and flushed into the Atlantic in what was considered Brazil's largest environmental catastrophe.
The AP reports that while Vale claims that the tailings—the name for muddy ore waste from the mines—behind its dams are mainly composed of non-toxic sand, but a report after the 2015 breach found they were contaminated with high levels of toxic heavy metals.
That has environmentalists concerned about the potential effects of this new breach, which could have ecosystem wide effects.
“Even if it was just sand, the volume is gigantic,” Carlos Rittl, a director at the non-profit network Observatorio do Clima tells Jeantet at the AP. “There is a very fine residue (of iron oxide) that will be deposited on the bed of the river.”
That means each time it rains, the iron ore in the riverbed will be stirred up once again, leading to a cycle of contamination. So far, the damage from the latest breach does not appear as widespread as the previous catastrophe. It’s believed the impact may stretch about 160 miles along the river, while the 2015 disaster spread contamination 416 miles of waterways. The other potential complication comes in the form of a hydroelectric dam downstream from the breach. Authorities are watching to see that dam can withstand the surge of red mud that is currently churning down the river.
The disaster brings Brazil’s mining industry under scrutiny. After the 2015 dam breach, despite lip service, little was done to change the regulatory structure at similar dams. Dom Phillips at The Guardian reports that Vale says the Brumadinho dam, part of complex built in 1976, was being decommissioned and had been deemed safe during inspections. However, the National Civil Society Forum for Hydrographic Basins had urged the government to suspend the mine’s license, deeming it unsafe.
“This tragedy was only a matter of time,” Carlos Eduardo Pinto, an environmental prosecutor who worked on the 2015 Mariana case, says. “Since the Fundão tailings dam, nothing has been done to increase control of this activity.”
The AP reports that 600 other mines in Minas Gerais state alone have been determined to be at risk for rupture. Brazil’s Attorney General Raquel Dodge vowed to investigate the incident. Already, reports Phillips, Brazil has fined Vale about $66 million for the disaster and frozen $1.3 billion in assets to help pay for the cleanup.
Brazil's newly elected president Jair Bolsonaro also tweeted out that the government will do what it takes to “prevent more tragedies.” But many critics and environmental groups have their doubts the breach will change much. Bolsonaro campaigned on a platform of deregulation, including opening off-limits reserves in the Amazon to farming and mining and deregulating the mining industry in order to boost Brazil’s economy. It’s difficult to say if this latest disaster will influence his stance, though after touring the disaster area by air he says he was shaken by the devastation, reports The New York Times.