1.6 million Brazilians struggle to recover from Fundão toxic waste spill

Could this be the future for the Frieda and Sepik rivers if their fate is entrusted to the global mining industry…

Some of the horrific damage done to the Rio Doce by the Samarco tailings dam collapse. Photo by Romerito Pontes from São Carlos

Some of the horrific damage done to the Rio Doce by the Samarco tailings dam collapse. Photo: Romerito Pontes

Zoe Sullivan | Mongabay | 03.06.2016

Seven months after a mine waste dam burst killing 19 people and polluting the 530 miles of the Rio Doce, the watershed’s people are losing faith that government or corporations will come to their aid.

On November 5, 2015, the Fundão iron mine tailings dam failed, pouring 50 million tons of ore and toxic waste into Brazil’s Rio Doce, polluting the river and croplands, killing fish and wildlife, and contaminating drinking water with toxic sludge for its 853 kilometer (530 mile) length.

Access to water has remained critically difficult in Rio Doce communities since the industrial mining accident, and a regional drought is worsening the crisis.

Rio Doce valley inhabitants are frustrated by what they see as a slow response to the environmental disaster by the dam’s owner, Samarco, a joint venture of Vale and BHP Billiton, two of the world’s largest mining companies, and also by the Brazilian government.

Roughly 1.6 million people continue struggling not only with the health risks associated with heavy metals in their water, but also with a growing lack of faith in the public institutions that are supposed to keep them safe, and in the large industrial corporations that share their communities.

“I was making ice cream, and didn´t hear the noise,” remembers Neuza da Silva Santos. “My sister arrived yelling that the dam had broken, and I went outside. The river was already full of sludge.… I went back inside and closed the window because I thought I would be coming back. We ran.”

Neuza then made a fateful decision. She gave up running, jumped in her car and drove to the top of the closest hill. “If I’d gone on foot, I wouldn’t have made it,” she said.

Da Silva Santos is one of the survivors of the Fundão dam collapse on November 5, 2015 that destroyed Bento Rodrigues, a small town located just below the mining waste impoundment. By the time she reached the top of that hill, she says, her home was covered in sludge.

Although reports show Samarco, the dam’s owner, knew about a leak at the impoundment ten hours earlier, no warning siren had sounded, and 19 people, including a child, died.

But the dam collapse was only the beginning of the Rio Doce nightmare.

According to a UN report, 50 million tons of iron ore and toxic waste were dumped into the river that day. The sludge covered riverbanks and cropland along the entire length of the 853 kilometer (530 mile) river, killing fish and other wildlife and contaminating the drinking water supply for much of the river valley.

Survivor Neuza da Silva Santos sits between two of her colleagues from an agricultural cooperative that produces a pepper jelly. They all lived in Bento Rodrigues, the town destroyed by the toxic mud flow, and have re-started their cooperative with support from Samarco, the company that owned the dam. The women originally started their coop in 2002 as an economic alternative to mining. Marlene Iaquil Serra sits on the left, and Keila Vardeli Oialho on the right. Photo by Zoe Zullivan

Survivor Neuza da Silva Santos sits between two of her colleagues from an agricultural cooperative that produces a pepper jelly. They all lived in Bento Rodrigues, the town destroyed by the toxic mud flow, and have re-started their cooperative with support from Samarco, the company that owned the dam. The women originally started their coop in 2002 as an economic alternative to mining. Marlene Iaquil Serra sits on the left, and Keila Vardeli Oialho on the right. Photo: Zoe Sullivan

Now, seven months later, after the media have gone, roughly 1.6 million people who live along the length of the river in Southeast Brazil continue struggling not only with the health risks associated with heavy metals in their water, but with a deep crisis of confidence in the public institutions that are supposed to keep them safe, and with the large industrial corporations that share their communities.

An unnecessary environmental tragedy

As of 2013, more than 68,000 people worked in the mining industry in the state of Minas Gerais according to the IBGE, the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics — although nearly 2,100 residents lost their jobs in the first half of 2015.

Industry, especially mining, accounts for more than R$4.6 billion in the city of Mariana where the disaster occurred. The service industry, by contrast, accounts for a third of that amount. Employment and economic figures like these help explain the power and privilege that the mining industry enjoys in the state — in spite of the Fundão dam collapse and other industrial accidents over the years.

According to one report, Samarco was attempting to quintuple the size of the Fundão waste reservoir by connecting two different tailing dams when the collapse happened. Brazil´s Globo network revealed that the company´s sensors had detected possible danger of collapse in 2014 and 2015 before the actual failure, although the company said that the dam had passed inspection in July of last year.

With a sharp fall in global iron ore prices in 2015, Samarco may have been more focused on expanding its production in order to avoid financial losses, and that emphasis may have overridden basic safety concerns. Samarco is a joint venture of Vale and BHP Billiton, two of the world’s largest mining companies.

A massive wave of toxic mud swept away the lives of locals living below the mining waste impoundment. Photo: Romerito Pontes

A massive wave of toxic mud swept away the lives of locals living below the mining waste impoundment. Photo: Romerito Pontes

Dirk van Zyl, a professor of Mining Engineering at the University of British Columbia told Bloomberg News that a waste impoundment disaster like the one seen on the Rio Doce “is a lot more expensive than doing things the right way.”

Zyl noted that a dry mining waste storage technique used in Chile, where earthquakes are common, costs ten times as much as the tailings dam solution used in Brazil, but is safer. He also noted that an initial estimate on the cost of recovery from the Fundão collapse done by Deutsche Bank put the figure at over US $1 billion. Asked for a current estimate, IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental protection agency, said that it was impossible to currently quantify the cost of environmental restoration.

David Chambers of the Center for Science in Public Participation is the co-author of a pending publication on mining safety. His study frames the Rio Doce disaster within a larger, global trend in which cheaper reservoir storage techniques end again and again in catastrophic failure. He argues that regulators should outlaw these structures.

Each location presents its own issues, counters Ben Chalmers, VP of Sustainable Development at the Mining Association of Canada, who was also quoted in the Bloomberg News article. He maintains that storage methods should vary based on circumstances, and that some mining waste products, such as those containing larger amounts of sulphides, may be safer under a certain amount of water. Such an option may work well if dry storage isn’t a viable option in a more humid tropical or subtropical region such as Brazil, or if a mine’s production is very high.

Safer storage techniques do cost more, experts agree, however those safeguards also cut into short-term profit margins. For some mining firms, the short-term gains of waste impoundments and other shortcuts win out over long-term viability and safety.

Officials continue to assess the destruction and ongoing environmental harm caused by the dam's failure. Photo Romerito Pontes

Officials continue to assess the destruction and ongoing environmental harm caused by the dam’s failure. Photo: Romerito Pontes

Critics say that Samarco and Vale fall into that category. Vale, the giant mining company, earned the distinction in 2012 of being voted the Worst Corporation in the World, with the most “contempt for the environment and human rights”, and with labor and human rights violations in 39 countries.

Rio Doce communities struggle to recover

Most residents of the Rio Doce watershed express the view that both Samarco and Vale should be held fully responsible for the Fundão disaster. This April, roughly 150 people attended a daylong event in the city of Governador Valadares that focused on the Rio Doce calamity. Their goal was to organize unified responses from river communities and demand justice from Samarco and its parent companies.

During a panel discussion, Douglas Krenak issued a wake-up call. “[Nature] is very generous, but when it’s time to pay the bill, she doesn’t distinguish between rich or poor, black or Indian. She tries to bring equilibrium, and we have to run after that so that these big companies don’t destroy what we are building,” he said. “The situation is really serious. People want to preserve a spring. People want to protect the river, plant things along the river… but the mining company is continuing to do what it was doing before. It’s not enough for us to do what we’re doing down here when up there, in the eye, in the heart of our river, the company is creating more calamities.”

Access to water has remained critically difficult in Rio Doce communities since the mining accident, and a regional drought is worsening the crisis. Dr. André Cordeiro Alves dos Santos, a Federal University of São Carlos researcher, has been working with a team of independent scientists to monitor water quality on the river. He told Mongabay that the rainy season proved insufficient to supply Rio Doce watershed cities and towns with adequate water: “It rained less than average [so] some cities that were using other water sources are now having difficulties… because many rivers and wells dried up.”

For the indigenous Krenak community that lives on a hill between a dry streambed and the polluted Rio Doce, the disaster did more than destroy their water supply. “Watu” is the Krenak name for the stream, meaning “sacred river.” The Krenak cacique, or chief, Geovany Krenak, says that the waterway is intimately connected to his people: “The river is part of my culture, my life, my essence. We see the river as sacred. To the extent that you destroy something sacred, you harm a culture.”

The community swam, fished and played in the river. Now its primary food source is gone, and there is no place to cool off on hot days — or even to get drinking water. Water trucks paid for by Samarco have been supplying water to the community since the disaster, but residents complain that this water has high levels of chlorine that irritate the skin and digestive system.

For Geovany Krenak, the issue goes beyond the physical problems the community is facing and touches on an existential one. “The wars came, the hydroelectric dams came, mining came. All of that, indirectly, is a way of eliminating the people. If you eliminate a people’s sacred points, you want to kill that people. It’s an indirect massacre,” he declares.

Ágencia Pública, a Brazilian investigative news organization, reports that government leniency and corporate impunity are recurring themes in Brazil’s handling of environmental disasters. Eduardo Santos de Oliveira has worked on past dam ruptures in Minas Gerais. Now a member of a task force of prosecutors handling the Samarco case, he told Ágencia Pública that the cause of such a disaster is a sum of things: “An accident of this proportion never happens for this or that reason. As a rule, it’s a sum of omissions or bad decisions.” Yet, he also admitted that such impoundments represent a relatively cheap way for mining companies to handle their waste even though better options exist.

Protest. The sign on the cross says "Watu: The river is our relative." Photo by Zoe Sullivanprotest. The sign on the cross says “Watu: The river is our relative.” Photo by Zoe Sullivan

Protest. The sign on the cross says “Watu: The river is our relative.” Photo: Zoe Sullivan

Brazil’s slap-on-the-wrist regulatory culture raises the possibility that the country will see more disasters like the Fundão dam collapse as its mining and other industrial infrastructure ages and deteriorates. This concern became even stronger in recent days as Dilma Rousseff’s Workers’ Party government — which was more inclined to help Brazil’s poorest citizens — has been replaced by the far more conservative Michel Temer PMDB government.

The Folha de Sâo Paulo newspaper highlighted a report prepared by Samarco upon the request of Brazilian judicial authorities that outlined the possibility of an even larger disaster if the waste impoundments that remain standing in Mariana aren’t safeguarded and prevented from collapsing. Were those dams to fail, they could release an estimated 105 billion liters of iron tailings waste. The newspaper also reported that Brazil has 16 mining-related dams that are considered insecure, and that the toxic mud continues to leak from the broken Fundão dam in spite of a judicial order for Samarco to stop it.

Life without the sacred river

For people all along the Rio Doces, these potential threats are taking a back seat to the immediate need to find drinkable water. The city of Governador Valadares, with a population of roughly 280,000, had no water at all for nearly two weeks following the dam break. During an April 15th protest march there, bystanders who talked with Mongabay agreed with the need to hold Samarco accountable for the disaster.

Pedro Costa, father of an 18-month infant, told mongabay.com that he thought the protest march was important: “We’re suffering a lot from the effects of the disaster. I have a small daughter, and I’m really worried about the water quality. The companies say that the water is fine, but other sources say it’s not. So measures need to be taken, and the guilty parties really need to be punished.”

Far downriver in the seaside town of Regência, the local state-run school has been without drinking water since the mining disaster. Luceli Gonçalves Rua, a master teacher there says that the school has been forced to rely on donations from individuals, the church and other entities to get their needs met. “Our own government didn’t worry about whether the school in Regência, as a state entity, had water to offer the children. We have drinking water that has come from various entities — but not our government.”

Art teacher Maria Ofrecida Calha de Souza says that students are suffering: “In the school, there are a lot of children going home with headaches and diarrhea after this mud arrived in the community.” She charges that the government isn’t properly protecting drinking water. “Often they’re filling the cisterns, and the water hasn’t been treated. Often the water comes to supply the houses, but it hasn’t been treated adequately.”

Samarco is conducting sampling and analysis of the Rio Doce water supply for IBAMA, Brazil’s federal environmental authority. An agency report issued in March found that lead levels in the water were within legal limits throughout the monitoring period, but that iron and manganese levels were both greatly over the limit. Excesses of iron can provoke diarrhea and vomiting, while high doses of manganese affect the central nervous system and can lead to tremors and weakness, along with impotence.

Those living along the Rio Doce acknowledge that the stream was contaminated even before November’s disaster. But a sense of extreme frustration at the inadequate government and corporate response now seems to have settled on those who live on or near the waterway. Cordeiro Alves dos Santos feels strongly that the spill’s damage to the river is likely incalculable: “I don’t think we’re going to be able to get it back to where it was before.”

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Filed under Environmental impact, Human rights

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