Brazil dam burst: at least 15 feared dead after disaster at BHP-owned mine

Dozens of people still missing after dam bursts at BHP / Vale iron-ore mine in south-eastern Brazil, with village destroyed by mudslides

An iron-ore mining dam has burst, flooding homes in south-eastern Brazil.

An iron-ore mining dam has burst, flooding homes in south-eastern Brazil.

The Guardian

A dam that burst at an iron-ore mine in south-eastern Brazil on Thursday is thought to have killed at least 15 people, devastating a nearby town with mudslides and leaving officials in the remote region scrambling to assess casualties.

Forty-five people were still missing after the disaster at the Germano mine near the town of Mariana in Minas Gerais state, a local union told the G1 news portal.

The mine is operated by Samarco, a joint venture between the Anglo-Australian mining giant BHP Billiton and the Brazilian company Vale.

Andrew Mackenzie, the chief executive of BHP, said in Melbourne:

“Most of what happened there has been under the cloak of darkness.

“At daybreak, clearly we will do an awful lot more and give you further updates.”

The company would “take all steps” to ensure the safety of the workers and communities affected by the disaster.

Cars and homes were destroyed after an iron mine dam burst in Minas Gerais state. Photograph: Oglobo

Cars and homes were destroyed after an iron mine dam burst in Minas Gerais state. Photograph: Oglobo

Video footage on the G1 website showed houses of a village destroyed by flood waters and clay-red mud that surged down valleys in the mountainous region. Large vehicles lay tossed on their sides.

There was no official confirmation on the total number of dead and missing. A city hall official confirmed one death and 16 injuries, adding that dozens more were still missing.

Civil defence authorities in Mariana said they were evacuating about 600 people to higher ground from the village of Bento Rodrigues, about 7km (just over 4 miles) beneath the dam that burst, which was flooded as a result of the accident.

Television footage showed dozens of homes destroyed by the mudslide. A car rested on top of a wall where the roof of a building had been ripped off.

Authorities said the flood had also reached another village further down the hill, Paracatu de Baixo, and that inhabitants there were also being evacuated.

Rescue crews continued to search the muddy waters after nightfall. Brazilian army units nearby stood ready to help the search and rescue effort and the minister of national integration, Gilberto Occhi, planned to visit the state on Friday to provide assistance, according to a note from the presidency.

People gather at the Arena Mariana, in Mariana, after a dam burst, forcing residents from their homes. Photograph: Douglas Magno/AFP/Getty Images

People gather at the Arena Mariana, in Mariana, after a dam burst, forcing residents from their homes. Photograph: Douglas Magno/AFP/Getty Images

Samarco said in a statement it had not yet determined why the dam burst or the extent of the disaster.

BHP Billiton said in a statement that it was “concerned for the safety of employees and the local community … We are in the process of obtaining more details from Samarco Mineracao.”

Vale directed media questions to Samarco.

Authorities said the dam was built to hold back water and residue from mining operations, a mixture that can often be toxic. The dam was holding so-called tailings, a mining waste product of metal filings, water and occasionally chemicals. It was located near the Gualaxo do Norte river, fuelling fears of potential water contamination.

Rescue teams were searching for survivors or bodies, and residents living nearby were told to evacuate to higher ground.

Site of the burst dam in Minas Gerais state.

Site of the burst dam in Minas Gerais state.

Samarco said in a statement on its website that it was making “every effort to prioritise care to people and mitigate damage to the environment”.

“It is not possible at this moment to confirm a cause,” it added.

A statement from the city hall of Mariana, a city of about 40,000 people 300km (185 miles) north of Rio de Janeiro, said the dam ruptured at 4.20pm in an area roughly 20km from the city centre.

The disaster comes as both Vale and BHP are battling a collapse in iron ore prices and a wider slump in the industry.

The Germano mine is a 50-50 joint venture between the world’s largest iron miner and the largest mining company.

Iron ore is transported down a slurry pipe to Espirito Santo in south-eastern Brazil, where it is turned into pellets. Samarco produces around 30 million tonnes per year, according to its website.

3 Comments

Filed under Environmental impact, Human rights

3 responses to “Brazil dam burst: at least 15 feared dead after disaster at BHP-owned mine

  1. With deepest sympathy to those who lost their loved ones at the BHP Samarco iron ore operation in Minas Gerais, in south-east Brazil. Our thoughts and prayers are with you at this sad and devasting time.

    The CEO did respond and you will note that the shareholders are very important. With deepest sympathy to those who lost their loved ones.

    Response from the CEO:
    First and foremost, our thoughts are with the Samarco employees, contractors, their families and the local community of Bento Rodrigues that has been devastated by the flooding.

    We are deeply concerned for their welfare.

    We still don’t know the full extent of the situation, but we are working closely with Samarco, and with Vale, to better understand the circumstances.

    I have spoken to the CEO of Vale, Murilo Ferreira, and Jimmy Wilson, our President of Iron Ore has been speaking with his equivalent in Vale , Peter Poppinga, as well as the CEO of Samarco, Ricardo Vescovi De Aragao.

    We have also offered our full assistance to the Samarco team, and the local authorities, to manage the immediate rescue efforts and help first with the clean-up and then the investigation.

    BHP Billiton and Vale are 50 per cent shareholders in the Brazilian company and joint venture, Samarco.

    As the operator, Samarco will continue to lead the more detailed communications and provide updates on the incident and the state of the operations.

    It is very important to me, and to all of employees and shareholders of BHP Billiton, that we speak today and offer our sympathies to the people of Minas Gerais.
    http://www.bhpbilliton.com/investors/news/ceo-statement-on-samarco

  2. Karis

    Which company designed the tailings dam? why was the dam not monitored regularly? No good offering words too late. This venture needs to be closed down and fined enough to build a new village further away, as the soil will be contaminated. The government will one hopes act on behalf of the villagers.

  3. They haven’t learnt , it’s take the good and run ,

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