Tailings dam breach - 'the assassination of Brazil's fifth largest river basin'

Area of Bento Rodrigues, Minas Gerais state, affected by the release of mine tailings from the failed dams. Photo: Agência Brasil Fotografias via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).
Area of Bento Rodrigues, Minas Gerais state, affected by the release of mine tailings from the failed dams. Photo: Agência Brasil Fotografias via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).
Brazil has suffered its biggest ever industrial disaster, write Ana Luisa Naghettini & Geraldo Lopes. Breached and overflowing dams have released a massive slug of toxic muds and tailings from iron mining into the country's fifth largest river system that provides drinking water for downstream cities, destroying ecosystems in rivers and vast areas of biologically fragile ocean.
Despite the disaster, Vale intends to build a new mine and tailings dam 15 times larger in the Gandarela Mountains just 100 metres from the Velhas river, which supplies the drinking water for 3 million people.

Exactly two weeks ago, on 5th November, a mud dam burst from the mining enterprise Samarco, a joint venture of the Brazilian enterprise Vale and the Anglo-Australian BHP Billiton, near Mariana city, Minas Gerais state, killing 11 people. There are 12 missing persons so far.

The disaster wiped the historical district of Bento Rodrigues off the map. The first collapse of the first Fundão dam also caused the overtopping of the Santarém dam, previously thought to have ruptured as well.

The toxic mud from the two dams has destroyed the entire ecology of the Doce river, which reaches the Atlantic ocean in the coastal region of Espírito Santo state. Two days ago, toxic mud reached the Abrolhos marine conservation unit - just north of Espírito Santo, in Bahia state.

André Ruschi, director of the Augusto Ruschi Institute, warns that the damage may persist for a century or more: "The nutrient flux of a third of all food chains from the Southeast and half of the Southern portion of the Atlantic Ocean is compromised and will function poorly for at least 100 years. It is the assassination of the fifth largest Brazilian river basin.

"This toxic mud soup that travels the Doce river channel (and that will keep descending for the next years every time we experience heavy rains) will reach the coastal region of Espírito Santo, spreading approximately 3.000 sq.km north and about 7.000 sq.km south.

"It will reach three marine conservation units: Comboios, Costa das Algas, and Santa Cruz, that altogether sum up to 200,000 km at sea. The most lethal minerals encountered in small quantities in the total mass of mud will appear in food chains for a century or so."

The Augusto Ruschi station of Marine Biology, established in Aracruz, Santa Cruz, in Espírito Santo state, began gathering fluvial and marine specimens at the mouth of the Doce river as soon as the dams burst, in an operation called 'Noah's Ark'. The idea is to avoid that the biodiversity of the region is entirely lost.

Massive fines levied - but is it enough?

President Dilma Rousseff and authorities from Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo yesterday began talks over the legal aspects of the mitigating efforts. Izabella Teixeira, Brazil's environmental minister, made the controversial statement that the Doce river basin would be recuperated in 10 years' time.

The Brazilian government and the Minas Gerais state government last week established a preliminary fine of 250 million reais (~ $65 million) - a sum strongly condemned as inadequate by conservationists and citizens in general. Futhermore, it was established that there would be a 30% discount for prompt payment, which would make the sum derisory.

This week, on 17th November, the fine was was increased to 1 billion reais, as Samarco admitted that the damages of the disaster are still far from being assessed.

Despite the disaster, Vale intends to build a new mine and tailings dam 15 times larger in the Gandarela Mountains just 100 metres from the Velhas river, which supplies the drinking water for 3 million people.

It has also emerged that the companies involved in the disaster, Vale, BHP and Samarco, are functioning with licenses which expired in 2013. The responsibility falls mainly on the ex-governors of Minas Gerais state Aécio Neves, who was Dilma Rousseff's political opponent in last year's presidential elections, and Antônio Anastasia, his successor. The current Minas Gerais state governor, Fernando Pimentel, seems intimidated by the two mining giants.

The environmental catastrophe has also raised once again the debate over the renationalization of enterprises that once belonged to the state, such as Vale. It is the second most important mining enterprise in the world - sold by the neoliberal Brazilian ex-president Fernando Henrique Cardoso in the 1990's.

Ruschi believes the enterprises involved in the disaster should not just be fined, but put out of business altogether - and excoriates them for theior poor response to the dam breaches. "Wouldn't it be best to keep the mud from reaching the sea?" he asks.

"Who had the brilliant idea of opening the dam gates instead of closing them to keep the mud from draining and then remove the mud from the river channel? Who still believes the sea has the power to dilute the pollution? This is a setback to science from a century ago!"

Celso Luiz Garcia, director of the National Department of Mineral Production (DNPM) since June, resigned on Tuesday this week citing 'health' grounds. A new director is due to be announced today.

Assessing the damage

To an environmental crime scene has yet to be opened up to independent examination, so information has been hard to come by and of doubtful veracity. Samarco went to great lenths to keep journalists from entering Bento Rodrigues since day one. And until this day, the company has not presented a thorough sampling study of the toxins present throughout the river channel.

Obtaining accurate information about the catastrophe has been similar to a scavenger hunt. An equally muddy process, not only due to the unknown ecological outcomes yet to be seen, but also because of the hidden political agendas buried in the subsoil of Minas Gerais.

Santarém dam suffered erosion but still stands. A third dam from the same enterprises - Germano - twice as large as Fundão and Santarém altogether, also presents serious risks of bursting in a near future. There is a 3 metre crack in the wall of the tailing pond.

As a precaution measure, a channel is being built to deviate the course of the toxic mud. According to Kleber Terra, Samarco's director, "both Santarém and Germano are undergoing emergency procedures to avoid a subsequential collapse. The structure reinforcement will be concluded in 90 and 45 days respectively."

Government reassurance - but who believes it?

In a highly controversial statement this week, the National Secretary of Protection and Civil Defense (Sedec) announced that water treatment and distribuition is already in a re-establishment phase. According to Adriano Pereira, from Sedec:

"The results of the analysis, of both raw and treated water, certify a significant reduction in water turbidity and the non-contamination by toxic materials, which confirms the drinkability of the water from the Doce river."

On the exact same day, a water monitoring study from the same municipality of Governador Valadares disclosed turbidity 80,000 times above tolerable limits; iron, 13,600 times higher, and aluminium, 6,500 times higher than recommended.

Hundreds of thousands of people from the municipalities at the banks of the Doce river suffered from water supply interruption. The water treatment plants are not prepared to receive elevated amounts of sediments and toxic minerals in general.

Governador Valadares, a city of 250,000 inhabitants in Minas Gerais, is economically stagnated since the toxic mud reached their surroundings. The population has been receiving water from tanker trucks, still in quantities below the actual need.

Even so, the debate over the need to internationalize the topic is widespread among local journalists. The local official media purposely deviated their attention almost entirely to the Paris attacks in an attempt to avoid further citizen upheaval.

Now Vale want to build a new tailings dam 15 times bigger

The mining situation in the province still refers to its ancient colonial extractivistic profile. The territory is a captive reservoir of minerals of high value. Mostly iron, gold and niobium. The mining activity in this article refers mainly to iron exploitation.

And despite the disaster, Vale is pushing ahead with new projects that would impose even higher risks. Vale intends to build a tailing dam 15 times the size of the two  previously failed dams combined, in the Gandarela Mountains of Rio Acima, 29 km from Belo Horizonte, state capital of Minas Gerais.

The dam would be located 100 metres from the Velhas river, a tributary of the São Francisco river, the latter crossing seven other Brazilian provinces. A rupture would compromise the transposition of the São Francisco river (aka Manuelzão Project), created to mitigate famine and water shortage in the Brazilian Northeast.

The area is occupied by 3 million people who depend on the water supply coming from the Gandarela Mountains where the toxic mine tailings would be stored.



Ana Luisa Diniz Naghettini is an undergraduate student at The Federal University of Minas Gerais. She studies Computational Mathematics and intends to specialize in Climate Modeling. She is Brazilian, spent most of her childhood in the US and has also lived in Argentina as an adult. She is a writer and an environmental activist.

Geraldo Elísio Machado Lopes is a Brazilian independent journalist. He received the prestigious Esso Journalism Regional prize in 1977 for reporting torture during the military regime in Brazil. He covers ecological events, focusing mostly on mining disasters. He is also a writer and an artist.

Reporting from Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil.

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