Vale and BHP Billiton causes tragedy in Brazil

Negligence resulted in the disruption of two dams controlled by two global mining companies Vale and BHP Biliton in the region of Mariana, state of Minas Gerais. November 5th, 2015, […]

Negligence resulted in the disruption of two dams controlled by two global mining companies Vale and BHP Biliton in the region of Mariana, state of Minas Gerais.

November 5th, 2015, will be remembered as another day in which profit is placed before people’s lives. Around 4 pm, the dam of Fundão, owned by Samarco Mineração, in the municipality of Mariana, Minas Gerais, broke up and released a sea of ??mud. The flood of mud reached another dam of mining tailings, Santarém, which also broke pouring entire contents into Bento Rodrigues district, located 15 km from Mariana city center. The district where 620 people lived have been affected by the flood and had 90% of their homes have been destroyed.
The residents without receiving any notice from the company, ran by the sound of the dam breaking, hastily fled to the hills and high parts of the district. Several residents reported seeing people being taken by the flood. Homes, schools, electricity, roads, everything has been destroyed. The residents were stranded and have been rescued by helicopters of the fire brigades.
The mud went down reaching more villages on the way. The city of Barra Longa, approximately 70 km from the dam site, is also affected. The mud invaded the city center, more than 100 people are now homeless and many residents were stranded in the countryside.

Authorities estimates that 2000 people have being affected; it does not include all the municipalities that have its water supply contaminated, river contamination and death of fish and other animals.

Photo of region under mud affected

Bento Rodrigues, Mariana (MG)- Photo: Douglas Magno/O tempo

Deaths and missing
There are controversial numbers regarding deaths and missing. According to the fire brigade more than 500 people have been rescued by firefighters. The authorities confirmed the death of three people: an employee of the mining company, a man found in the Doce River near Barra Longa and a 7 year old from Bento Rodrigues district who was carried by the mud. Samarco reported that 13 workers are missing. The city hall also announced the number of people missing, and untill today there are 25 people missing.

Toxic Residual

The mud of the dam are from iron mining activities. Untill now, there is information that 4 rivers have been contaminated by the waste: córrego Fundão, rio Gualaxo do Norte, rio Carmo e rio Doce. According to the mining workers, the waste contents of iron, heavy metals as mercurium and and arsenic, which are highly toxic. At a news conference, the president of Samarco said that the waste is inert and does not harm humans.

The people affected who had contact with the mud, disagree, many have reported malaise, dizziness, headache, pain. The volunteers who made the initial treatment of victims also reported that those affected had symptoms of poisoning: dizziness, nausea, headache and mental confusion.
The prosecutor of Minas Gerais has appointed five prosecutors to investigate the causes of the disaster and responsibility. Carlos Eduardo Pinto promoter reported that tests will be performed to see if the mud is toxic.

Places Affected

The mud avalanche have reached the municipality of Mariana and its districts, Barro Longa (and its district: Gesteira), Acaiaca (and its district Goiabeira) and Rio Doce.

Photo of devastation caused

Photo: Douglas Resende and Rafael Lage

Whose responsibility?
According to the company, the causes the rupture of the dams are still unknown. News reported the occurrence of tremors observed by the Seismology Center of USP (Universidade de São Paulo). However, in an interview to Globo News Professor Marcelo Assumpção, from the Department of Geophysics of USP, said that the aftershocks were of low intensity. Were weak tremors that often are not perceived by people. According to the professor, this type of shock can occur every day and hardly affect the structure of a dam.

For MAB, systematic disclosure of this information seems like a company’s strategy to evade its responsibilities. The company is responsible for construction, maintenance and guarantee to operate safely. Therefore, any occurring is the mining’s responsibility. At the time of the accident, Samarco was performing a work of heightening of the Fundão and Germano dam. The company has not released if there is a relationship of these works to the accident.

Samarco Mineração is owned by Vale (50%) and the Anglo-Australian BHP Billiton (50%), the two largest mining companies in the world. In 2014 Samarco had a net profit of 2.8 billion reais. It obtained, from April to June 2015, net profit of 5.14 billion reais, while BHP earned 6.42 billion dollars by June 2015. So we’re talking about one of the biggest companies in the world. Even with all that profit, these miners refused to invest the minimum security necessary to prevent a catastrophe of such magnitude.

The company was aware of the risks
In 2013 the State Prosecutor commissioned a study by experts who concluded that weaknesses in the dam could lead to its collapse. Therefore, the prosecution demanded Samarco building an emergency plan and alert. This was never done. Several people affected from Bento Rodrigues reported that for years the community had been making complaints about the insecurity of dams.

Treatment to those affected
For now, what can be seen is a delay to the care of those affected. There was no evacuation and contingency plan. The company was slow to take the people affected to hotels, what happened only after the Public Prosecutor’s order to transfer the people. In such cases of accidents, companies wait until “dust settles”, negotiate individually, pay derisory compensations compared to the damage suffered. This is a practice that can be observed in other similar cases.

Mobilization of society and state
Rescue residents in Mariana (MG) – Photo:
As soon as the disaster was announced society mobilized and began a fundraising campaign for donations and several people came forward for volunteer work. The city, Fire Brigade, Civil Defense, Military and Civil Police, State Government and Federal Government mobilized and initiated care to those people affected.
The affected people were taken to the Arena Mariana, a temporary accommodation. There people made registrations, received initial medical attention and serious cases were sent to Hospital in Belo Horizonte by helicopter. The presence and action of Samarco was delayed.

There are still risks
The complex tailings dams where dam Fundão and Santarém were located also has another dam: Germano. The Germano dam does not show evidence of rupture, but the body of Firemen did not rule out the possibility of rupture, which would multiply the catastrophe. This third dam is twice as large as the two dams that were broken. The population has been alerted and activities in the Samarco mine are paralyzed.

The Movement of People Affected by Dams are following the work of the authorities in the rescue and care of victims, and the organizational work of the affected families. This work is fundamental to the empowerment of the population. So that people’s rights are not trampled and those affected are not forgotten, the struggle and organization are needed. MAB activists are accompaning the work of the authorities, spoke with the people rescued at the Arena Mariana, are talking to those affected allocated at the hotels, held meetings with local organizations and continue investigating the facts to contribute to the organization of the population.


MAB activists talking to authorities about the rights of those affected. Photo: Rafaela Dotta – Brasil de Fato

On 12/11 the Movement of People Affected by Dams, with leaders of the Church, will conduct a march Right to Life, to show solidarity to the affected families and strengthen the demand to hold responsible the companies to pay for the damage caused to people’s lives. The march will close with a debate on the rights of those affected and the responsibilities of the accident.
On 17/11 will be hold an open debate in Belo Horizonte meeting people affected, governments, parliamentarians, trade unions, movements, churches and social pastoral to discuss the responsibility for what happened and the situation of families in Mariana and other cities.

MAB also charges the company answers about what will be done about the impact on cities of Minas Gerais and Espirito Santo that are bordered by the river of Rio Doce, especially those that take water directly from the river for supplies.

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