Tag Archives: Brazil

BHP Billiton facing £5bn lawsuit from Brazilian victims of dam disaster

Ruined homes in the small town of Bento Rodrigues, Brazil after the disaster. Photograph: Felipe Dana/AP

Action launched in Liverpool against Anglo-Australian mining company after 2015 tragedy that killed 19 people

Jonathan Watts | The Guardian | 6 November 2018 

The worst environmental disaster in Brazil’s history has triggered one of the biggest legal claims ever filed in a British court.

The Anglo-Australian mining company BHP Billiton is being sued for about £5bn by Brazilian victims of the Samarco dam collapse in Mariana three years ago.

The class action case was filed in the Liverpool high court on Monday by the UK-based SPG Law on behalf of 240,000 individuals, 24 municipal governments, 11,000 businesses, a Catholic archdiocese and the Krenak indigenous community.

Nineteen people died after toxic waters from the failed tailings dam surged through the village of Bento Rodrigues on 5 November 2015. The sludge destroyed hundreds of homes, devastated fisheries, contaminated forests and left hundreds of thousands of dwellers along the Doce River without drinking water.

It emerged that the company had accurately predicted the risks in a worst-case assessment made six months earlier. Prosecutors charged senior executives of the dam operator Samarco Mineração with homicide and accused its parent companies – Vale and BHP Billiton – of environment damage.

A civil case has been filed in Brazilian courts, but the plaintiffs believe they have more chance to get fair and speedy compensation in Britain than in their home country, where courts can take more than a decade to reach a judgement and compensation offers are far short of the damages incurred.

Lawyers in the UK say that, in certain cases, they will seek 10 to 20 times the damages being offered to individuals in Brazil. For example, individuals who lost their water supply for two weeks have been offered £200 in Brazil whereas £2,000 to £4000 will be claimed in the UK. Fishermen who have only been offered £20,000 each to cover the losses associated with three years’ worth of catches will be seeking 20 years’ worth of future losses based on the slow pace of river recovery. Local governments will demand lost tax revenues and compensation for increased health and unemployment costs.

If jurisdiction in the UK is accepted, the lawsuit is likely to raise the international profile of the case. The first hearing would be next summer and the case could last two to five years. Representatives from the affected communities will be called to testify in Liverpool along with expert witnesses, including Brazilian lawyer Érica Gorga.

Tom Goodhead of the Anglo-American SPG Law firm said many of the plaintiffs suffered catastrophic losses yet received almost no compensation after three years in contravention of Brazilian law which says full damages should be paid and the environment be completely restored after an accident.

“Brazil’s courts are cripplingly slow,” he said. “The main purpose of filing this case in the UK is to move at greater speed and to seek a greater amount. People have been let down by the politicians and the courts. We tell them there is no guarantee of winning, but we will put up a proper fight on their behalf.”

The law firm will work on a no-win no-fee basis, taking a maximum of 30% of any compensation they are able to secure for the plaintiffs. This will not be levied in the case of the indigenous community. SPG Law has already spent £1.5m on the case and estimates future costs of £18m, according to Goodhead.

BHP Billiton has yet to respond to a request for a comment, but in previous statements to the Guardian, Samarco, Vale and BHP Billiton said they rejected the charges, that safety had been and remained a priority and that the dam complied with Brazilian legislation. The companies have said they would defend their employees and executives.

Separately from the civil action in Brazil, the three companies made a deal with the federal and state governments in March 2016 to carry out repair, restoration and reconstruction programmes. They have spent more than $1bn on a huge clean-up and relief operation, separate from civil actions launched by prosecutors.

Samarco has paid about $6.7m in fines levied separately by the state government of Minas Gerais. BHP has also announced that it is working on restoring the affected area through a charitable foundation.

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Brazil dam disaster: firm knew of potential impact months in advance

Unreported documents show mining company was aware of threat before country’s worst environmental disaster – but firm failed to take action, prosecutors allege

Dom Phillips and Davilson | The Guardian | 1 March 2018

Six months before a dam containing millions of litres of mining waste collapsed, killing 19 people in Brazil’s worst environmental disaster, the company operating the mine accurately predicted the potential impact of such a disaster in a worst-case risk assessment.

But federal prosecutors claim the company – a joint venture between the Brazilian mining giant Vale and the Anglo-Australian multinational BHP Billiton – failed to take actions that they say could have prevented the disaster. The prosecutors instead claim the company focused on cutting costs and increasing production.

“They prioritized profits and left safety in second place,” said José Adércio Sampaio, coordinator of a taskforce of federal prosecutors, summarising the criminal case against the joint venture and its parent companies.

When the Fundão tailings dam failed on 5 November 2015, it unleashed about 40m litres of water and sediment from iron ore extraction in a wave that polluted the water supply for hundreds of thousands of people, decimated wildlife and spewed a rust-red plume of mud down the Doce river.

Yet more than two years later, nobody has accepted responsibility.

Previously unreported internal documents from the joint venture Samarco show that six months before the collapse, the company carried out a worst-case assessment of the dam, near Mariana in Minas Gerais state.

The Fundão dam had a catastrophic failure in 2015, causing flooding and at least 17 deaths. Photograph: Nicoló Lanfranchi

The document – one of hundreds submitted to the court by prosecutors – warned that a maximum possible loss from a “liquification break” could mean up to 20 deaths, cause serious impacts to land, water resources and biodiversity over 20 years, and cost $3.4bn.

The prosecutors’ complaint also includes harrowing accounts by survivors from Bento Rodrigues, a small community obliterated by the mud released in the disaster.

Wesley Izabel managed to save his two-year-old son, Nicolas, but his daughter, Emanuelle, 5, slipped from his fingers to her death.

When the mud engulfed her house, Darcy Santos heard her grandson Thiago, 7, cry “help me, Jesus!” before he was suffocated.

In 2016, 21 people were charged with qualified homicide, including Samarco’s former CEO and representatives from Vale and BHP Billiton on its board of directors. All the defendants and three companies were also charged with environmental damage.

A separate civil action by prosecutors seeking $48bn in damages was launched in 2016 and is still being negotiated. In January last year, prosecutors and the three companies signed a preliminary deal worth $680m to guarantee recuperation work.

In statements to the Guardian, Samarco, Vale and BHP Billiton said they rejected the charges, that safety had been and remained a priority and that the dam complied with Brazilian legislation. The companies have separately said they would defend their employees and executives.

Separately from the civil action, the three companies made a deal with the federal and state governments in March 2016 to carry out repair, restoration and reconstruction programmes. They have spent more than $1bn on a huge clean-up and relief operation, separate from civil actions launched by prosecutors.

Samarco has also paid about $6.7m in fines levied separately by the state government of Minas Gerais – but none of the 24 fines totalling $105m imposed by the Brazilian government’s environment agency, Ibama.

“Samarco believes there are technical and juridical aspects in the decisions that need to be re-evaluated,” the company said in a statement.

None of the 375 families who lost their homes have yet been rehoused.

“It is a lot of injustice,” said Sandra Quintão, 45, whose small restaurant in Bento Rodrigues was swallowed by the mud.

Until the disaster, Samarco was a Brazilian success story. In 2014, despite falling international iron prices, it declared a net profit of $1.3bn.

But prosecutors allege that its directors encouraged the company to keep cutting costs.

When the dam failed, it unleashed about 40m litres of water and sediment from iron ore extraction. Photograph: Nicoló Lanfranchi

According to minutes from an August 2015 board meeting, which were included in the legal proceedings, company directors said: “Despite the improvements in cost reduction the world is not standing still and further improvements are needed.”

The importance of safety was also stressed at board meetings. At a meeting in August 2012, the board praised Samarco’s safety performance and said the company should “maintain its focus on eliminating fatal risks”.

Prosecutors say that the Fundão tailings dam, one of several huge earthworks built to store iron ore mining waste, had always been problematic.

“The dam had been giving problems year after year,” claimed Sampaio, the prosecutor.

Almost as soon as it started operating in 2008, the dam presented problems with its drainage system and signs of erosion, according to photographs and inspection reports included in court documents.

Samarco lowered the reservoir, changed the drainage system and embarked on a series of remedial works.

After the disaster, Samarco, Vale and BHP Billiton commissioned an investigation by the international law firm Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton (CGSH). Published in August 2016, it found that construction flaws had damaged the dam’s original drainage system and described attempts to correct the problems.

The report also pointed to three small seismic shocks in the area about 90 minutes before the dam failed. “This additional movement is likely to have accelerated the failure process that was already well advanced,” it said.

The CGSH report did not apportion any blame and Samarco said it would not comment on it. Many of the issues it described are also included in the prosecutors’ complaint.

Seepage, saturation and cracking were seen at the dam in 2013, and again in August 2014, the report said. Samarco reinforced the dam with a berm.

Sandra Quintão, a survivor from Bento Rodrigues, with her daughter in front of a temporary new house in Mariana. Photograph: Nicoló Lanfranchi

A month later, Pimenta de Ávila, a consultant who had previously carried out work for Samarco, reported that “static liquefaction could be present”, documents show. He inspected the area in December 2014 and told prosecutors he had informed Samarco the situation “was not under control”.

Samarco continued raising the height of the dam. According to the CGSH report, this was done in part to enable the company to correct drainage problems.

In separate responses to the Guardian, all three companies denied the prosecutors’ charges.

Samarco did not respond to questions on the dam’s problems, its failure and the risk assessment. In a statement, it said prosecutors had “disregarded the defences and testimonies presented during investigations”, which it said “prove that Samarco did not have any previous knowledge of the risk to its structures”.

BHP Billiton, which owns half of Samarco, said in an email: “We have no reason to believe BHP people knew the dam was at risk of failing. BHP and its representatives will defend these charges.”

Vale, which owns the other half of the joint venture, said in an email that it “repudiates vehemently the complaint presented by prosecutors because innumerable pieces of evidence and testimony presented in the case files that proved that Vale was never responsible for the operational management of the Fundão dam were disrespected”. Vale said: “Board members were always expressively assured of the regularity of the structures.”

According to minutes included in court documents, Samarco’s board of directors, which included representatives of Vale and BHP Billiton, was briefed several times between 2009 and 2014 on the dam’s construction problems and efforts to fix it.

Minutes for all of these meetings – included in court documents – state that representatives from all three companies attended.

At the time of the disaster, the Fundão dam was fitted with devices used to measure liquid pressure and water level, but according to the prosecutors’ case, several were either not working, lacked batteries or had been moved to another dam. Samarco declined to comment on this.

President Michel Temer’s business-friendly government wants to increase mining, even in sensitive areas like the Amazon, and make environmental licensing more flexible. Photograph: Nicoló Lanfranchi

There was no warning siren. When the dam broke, residents were warned by telephone calls or – in Quintão’s case – by a neighbour who roared up on a motorbike shouting: “The dam has burst!”

Samarco said that at the time of the disaster, sirens were not legally required.

The court case, which is being heard in the town of Ponte Nova, is in its preliminary stage and the judge is yet to decide whether it will be heard by a jury.

It was suspended in July after the former Samarco CEO Ricardo Vescovi and another defendant complained that wiretaps were recorded outside of the investigation period, and that the inclusion as evidence of corporate emails and chats invaded their privacy.

The case resumed in November, after the judge decided that corporate emails and chats could not be included and ruled to separate out the cases involving foreign defendants.

Samarco and its owners are keen to return to production. In December, Samarco was given preliminary licences by the Minas Gerais state government’s environment agency for a new reject storage system at the plant.

President Michel Temer’s business-friendly government wants to increase mining, even in sensitive areas like the Amazon, and make environmental licensing more flexible.

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Victims of Brazil’s worst environmental disaster bring their call for justice to London

Demanding accountability

Demanding accountability: Having done it once in Papua New Guinea how could ‘World Class’ BHP allow the same thing to happen in Brazil?

Brazilians affected by the fatal Samarco dam disaster in 2015 share their stories of lives destroyed and present community demands for reparations to mining corporation BHP Billiton’s London AGM.

Alex King | Huck Magazine

When the Fundao dam collapsed in Brazil’s Minas Gerais region in November last year, nobody could predict how disastrous its effects would be.

As a tidal wave of sludgy mining waste from the Samarco mining operation swept through the region, it devastated all that sat in its path, killing fish and aquatic life the length of the River Doce, until it hit the sea more than 600km away. At least 19 people were killed, 700 left homeless, and vast swathes of agricultural land and river polluted.

In June 2016, a Brazilian federal police investigation concluded the company knew the dam was at risk, was not properly monitored, and recommended charging against eight people.

A year after the disaster, the local community is still asking for answers from Samarco – a joint venture between the largest mining corporation in the world, BHP Billiton, and the Brazilian firm Vale.

Brazilians affected by the disaster arrived in London today to demand accountability from BHP Billiton at their Annual General Meeting, asking for communities to be given a real say in the reconstruction efforts.

bhp-protest-london-oct-2016-2

Maria do Carmo Dangelo, a farmer from Paracatu in Minas Gerais

“After the dam broke, we were forced out of our house by the wave of mud. Luckily, a friend from Mariana (the nearby city) had called to warn us what was coming, otherwise nobody in the village would have know. The noise was incredible. The mud was knocking down tress, bridges and houses.

“We were absolutely terrified. I had to grab my parents from their house across the street and carry my three-year-old son, who had pneumonia at the time. By the time I got everyone together, the mud was already at my front door so we had to take the back door to escape to higher ground.

“We spent the first night at a neighbour’s house, higher up the mountainside. The next day, at dawn, we woke up to the horror of seeing everything destroyed and covered by mud. My son was shocked didn’t stop crying, seeing everything he had ever known covered by mud. He was really afraid and spent a lot of time fearing that something like that would happen again.

“We’re still living in temporary accommodation in another rural town nearby. All the people who thought they were free living in the countryside are now living in towns and they feel imprisoned. We get help from some of the social movements and the public prosecutor intervened to ensure that we receive payments equal to the minimum salary, but I’m skeptical about the recovery process. There is still so much mining waste where it was and another dam whose state we don’t know. Our village, Paracatu, is completely destroyed and the way things are going, I don’t think we will ever be able to return.”

Leticia Oliveira from the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB)

“Our social movement has been working with people affected by dams in the area for a while, mainly the huge Belo Horizonte project, but were also active in the area of the Samarco disaster before it occurred.

“The morning after the disaster we were in Mariana, the main city in the affected region, to have meetings and coordinate relief for people’s immediate needs. In the aftermath, they needed housing, clothes and wanted to know what was going happen to the people affected.

“After their immediate needs were taken care of, we started working to organise people to make a political response. We’re concerned that local people don’t have enough say in the reconstruction process. We’re in London to pressure BHP to involve the communities in the process and make sure they are consulted at every stage.”

Rodrigo de Castro Amédée Péret, a Franciscan Friar who has been coordinating community responses to the disaster

“You can’t imagine the destruction. The tidal wave of mud was 18 metres high and carried up to 40m cubic meters of mining waste through the region, destroying all the flora and fauna. Maria and others were 70km away and they couldn’t understand how it could affect them, but the mud arrived at their homes in just four hours. Just imagine the speed.

“Rural people were taken to the cities, housed in gyms at first, then put into hotels after a few days, before the local attorney said company had to rent properties for them. These are people who have spent their whole lives in the countryside and are now forced to live in the cities, so there’s huge psychological distress that continues to this day.

“The criteria for who is and who isn’t affected by the disaster, and who deserves support, came from the company itself. So, you perpetrate a disaster and now you’re the ones who are going to decide who was affected by it? The affected person has to prove that they have lost income or their home, for example, and the form is long and confusing. The process recognises those who own property, but the people who were working in the area are struggling to get compensation.

“Affected communities are not being consulted sufficiently over the reconstruction efforts. They are have no decision-making power in Fundacion Renova, the body set up by the company to manage the reconstruction. We’re now involved in a struggle against the new dyke they want to build that will cover the first village struck, Bento Rodrigues. Scholars suggest it won’t be sufficient to hold back the waste, which is still leaking and contaminating the river. We’re protest against this logic: you commit a crime, you control the crime scene and you manage the process afterwards. When you commit a crime, you’re not supposed to say what happens to your victim. You have to be sentenced and pay for what you did.”

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Brazil Charges 21 People With Homicide in BHP Mining Dam Collapse

It is a shame PNG did not hold BHP mining executives similarly accountable over Ok Tedi and never seems to consider criminal charges in other cases of severe environmental damage

Last year’s failure of the Fundão dam released a torrent of sludge that washed away villages.

Last year’s failure of the Fundão dam released a torrent of sludge that washed away villages.

Current and former officials from Vale SA and BHP Billiton and joint venture Samarco Mineração named

Paul Kiernan | Wall Street Journal | October 20 2016

Brazilian federal prosecutors filed homicide charges Thursday against 21 people in connection with a catastrophic collapse of a mining dam last year that killed 19 people.

Those charged include current and former top executives of mining giants Vale SA and BHP Billiton Ltd. and their joint venture, Samarco Mineração SA. Among them are former Samarco Chief Executive Ricardo Vescovi, Vale’s current iron-ore director Peter Poppinga, and eight Vale and BHP representatives at Samarco.

The charges mark the end of a nearly year long criminal investigation into the Nov. 5, 2015, failure of Samarco’s Fundão tailings dam in southeast Brazil.

Believed to be the biggest disaster of its kind anywhere, the incident released a torrent of sludge that washed away villages, displaced hundreds of people and traveled more than 400 miles through southeast Brazil’s Rio Doce basin before reaching the Atlantic Ocean. Almost a year later, the river is still tainted a rusty red from sediment, its washed-out banks visible from the cruising altitude of commercial airliners.

Additional charges against the 21 individuals include the crimes of causing a flood, landslide and grave bodily harm. Vale, BHP and Samarco were also charged with 12 different kinds of environmental crimes. Employees of a consulting firm that performed periodic checkups on Fundão were charged with presenting false stability reports.

In an emailed statement, Samarco said it “refutes” the charges and said the prosecutors ignored defense statements that it presented over the course of the investigation, “which prove that the company had no prior knowledge of the risks to its structure.”

“Safety was always a priority in the management strategy of Samarco, which reiterates that it never reduced investments in this area,” the company added.

BHP Billiton said it “rejects outright the charges against the company and the affected individuals. We will defend the charges against the company, and fully support each of the affected individuals in their defense of the charges against them.”

Vale reaffirmed its “deep respect and total solidarity” with the disaster’s victims but said it “vehemently repudiates” the charges filed Thursday. It added that its representatives on Samarco’s board confirmed that they “were never informed by Samarco’s technical or leadership team of any irregularities that could have represented real or untreated risks to the dam, nor by any consultancy responsible for monitoring the structure.”

The individual defendants couldn’t be reached.

Some 400 miles of rivers in the Rio Doce basin were flooded with mud and heavy metals from the dam collapse. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Some 400 miles of rivers in the Rio Doce basin were flooded with mud and heavy metals from the dam collapse. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

If convicted of “qualified homicide,” the individuals could face sentences of between 12 and 30 years in prison, prosecutors said, adding that Brazil has extradition agreements with most or all of the countries from which the suspects hail.

“[The victims] were killed by the violent passage of the tailings mud, they had their bodies thrown against other objects, such as pieces of wood, they had their bodies mutilated and…dispersed across an area of 110 kilometers,” federal prosecutor Eduardo Santos de Oliveira said at a press conference. “The motivation of the homicides was the excessive greed of the companies—Samarco, here charged, as well as its shareholders—in the name of profit.”

Potential penalties for Vale, BHP and Samarco range from payment of fines and funding of charitable programs to partial or total suspension of their activities. Prosecutors added that they requested damage payments for the victims, the amount of which remains to be determined.

A judge must accept the charges for a trial, which would take place before a jury, to begin.

In a report released in August, the companies presented a report on the factors that contributed to Fundão’s failure.

All three firms have apologized for the disaster and committed to a full remediation of the damage. But Brazilian courts rejected a March settlement signed by the companies and the government. Prosecutors are seeking to replace it with a civil lawsuit filed in May in which they sought 155 billion reais ($49 billion) in damages and compared the Samarco disaster to BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The prosecutors’ case hinges what they say is evidence that Samarco and its shareholders were aware of chronic structural problems at Fundão dating back to April 2009. They say Samarco’s board—made up of Vale and BHP officials—was informed of flaws in the dam but responded by pressuring the company to extract more iron ore.

Samarco’s board was also allegedly informed of the likely consequences of a dam failure, prosecutors said. Company risk managers allegedly had estimated as recently as 2015, according to prosecutors, that a collapse of Fundão could kill 20 people, stop Samarco’s operations for two years and deal a substantial blow to the mining companies’ reputations.

Surviving residents of the devastated community of Bento Rodrigues reported after the accident that they received no official warning from Samarco in the crucial minutes after the dam gave way.

“There were internal committees, operational committees, dam committees, in which the issues were discussed, and on those committees there were representatives of Vale and BHP,” prosecutor José Adércio Leite Sampaio said. “Based on the minutes, on what was debated in those minutes, on the documents that were presented at those meetings, we identified the list of people on the charge sheet.”

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Is Brazil’s worst environmental disaster a warning for the Sepik?

Brazil’s Doce River still foul eight months after dam collapse

In southeastern Brazil the 1.6 million people living along the Doce River are still struggling not only with health risks, but also with a crisis of public confidence.

Is this what could happen to the Sepik river if the Frieda mine goes ahead? 

brazil river

DW | July 5, 2017

“I was making ice cream, and didn’t hear the noise,” recalls 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.”

Da Silva Santos didn’t come back. Her decision to drive away ended up being fateful, as she survived the collapse of the dam by getting in a car; 19 other people were not so lucky.

Reports show that although Brazilian mining company Samarco, the dam’s owner, knew about a leak at the impoundment 10 hours earlier, there had been no warning siren.

Dredging near the town of Rio Doce shows the extent of ongoing contamination

Dredging near the town of Rio Doce shows the extent of ongoing contamination

According to the United Nations, 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. Toxic sludge reached the Atlantic some two-and-a-half weeks later.

It’s considered the worst environmental disaster in Brazil’s history.

Did the mining companies act irresponsibly?

The mining industry accounts for more than $1.4 billion (1.23 billion euros) in the city of Mariana, where the disaster occurred. According to a report by Brazilian daily “Folha de São Paolo,” Samarco was attempting to quintuple the size of the Fundão waste reservoir by connecting two different tailing dams when the collapse happened.

Samarco is a joint venture of Vale and BHP Billiton, two of the world’s largest mining companies. Brazil’s Globo television 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 the dam had passed inspection in July.

In an act of protest against the mining companies, a Brazilian boy holds a sign saying: "How much is life worth?"

In an act of protest against the mining companies, a Brazilian boy holds a sign saying: “How much is life worth?”

Critics say that due to 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.

Dirk van Zyl, a professor of mining engineering at the University of British Columbia, told Bloomberg News that dam failure like the one seen on the Rio Doce “is a lot more expensive than doing things right.”

Zyl noted that a dry-mining waste storage technique used in Chile, where earthquakes are common – although much safer – costs 10 times as much as the tailings dam solution. He also noted that an initial estimate on the cost of recovery from the Fundão collapse done by Deutsche Bank put the figure at more than $1 billion.

Blow to indigenous people

Krenak called the aftermath of the dam collapse an indirect massacre of his people

Krenak called the aftermath of the dam collapse an indirect massacre of his people

For the indigenous Krenak community, which 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 waterway, 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, as is its place to cool off on hot days – or even obtain 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 stomach.

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,” he declared.

For the Krenak community, the river was a sacred source of water for life

For the Krenak community, the river was a sacred source of water for life

Future dam failures?

Agencia Publica, 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, a member of a task force of prosecutors handling the Samarco case, told Agencia Publica that the cause of such a disaster “as a rule, [is] a sum of omissions or bad decisions.”

BHP Billiton and Vale will pay up to $5.1 billion over 15 years in a settlement with the Brazilian government. In June 2016, Brazil’s Environment Ministry fined Samarco an additional $41.6 million for damages to protected areas.

However, Brazil’s Supreme Court issued a temporary decision July 1, 2016, suspending the settlement on the grounds that the case should be decided by a lower court in Minas Gerais where the dam broke. Vale and Samarco said they would appeal.

But the large fines in this high-profile case are an exception, not the rule. Observers in particular point to regulatory failures in preventing such disasters.

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.

“Folha de São Paulo” reported that Brazil has 16 mining-related dams that are considered insecure, and that toxic mud continues to leak from the broken Fundão dam, despite a judicial order for Samarco to stop it.

Toxic sludge from the mining dam collapse even reached the Atlantic Ocean

Toxic sludge from the mining dam collapse even reached the Atlantic Ocean

Need for clean drinking water

For people all along the Rio Doce, these potential threats are taking a back seat to the immediate need to find potable 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.

Compounding river contamination issues, the area has also suffered drought.

André Cordeiro Alves dos Santos, a Federal University of São Carlos researcher, said the rainy season proved insufficient to supply cities and towns of the Rio Doce watershed with adequate water resources.

“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.”

Samarco is sampling and analyzing the Rio Doce water supply for Brazil’s federal environmental authority, which found that iron and manganese levels were both greatly over the allowed limit.

Excesses of iron can provoke diarrhea and vomiting, while high doses of manganese affect the central nervous system and can lead to tremors, weakness and impotence.

Pedro Costa, the father of an 18-month-old infant, shared his fears. “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.”

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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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Brazil’s plan to tighten rules on mining dams unlikely to improve safety

A view of the Samarco mine, owned by Vale SA and BHP Billiton Ltd., in Mariana, Brazil on April 12. (WASHINGTON ALVES/REUTERS)

A view of the Samarco mine, owned by Vale SA and BHP Billiton Ltd., in Mariana, Brazil on April 12. (Washington Alves/Reuters)

Stephen Eisenhammer and Marta Nogueira | Reuters

Brazilian regulators plan to tighten rules on dams used in the mining industry after a breach last year caused the country’s worst environmental disaster, but the changes – while opposed by struggling companies – look unlikely to improve safety.

Environmental authorities say they will demand an increase in the number and focus of audits for hundreds of dams holding mining waste, known as tailings. They also want to limit the size of dams and how often their walls can be raised to store more waste.

But engineers, prosecutors and tailings dam experts say the changes will do little to prevent another tragedy if Brazil’s chronically under-resourced regulators are not themselves improved.

When the Fundao dam burst in November at the Samarco mine, owned by BHP Billiton Ltd. and Vale SA, enough mud to fill 12,000 Olympic swimming pools flattened an entire village, killed 19 people and left hundreds homeless. The sludge flooded the Rio Doce river, choking fish and spitting them lifeless to the surface.

“Fundao is the Chernobyl of the mining industry. There is a before and there is an after,” said Geraldo Abreu, head of licensing at the Semad environmental agency for the state of Minas Gerais where the spill occurred.

Mr. Abreu and the task force he joined to revise state and national rules for the industry in the wake of the disaster are focusing on dams built the same way as Fundao, a design known as upstream.

It costs about half the price of other dams but is regarded as having a greater risk of failure because its walls are built on a foundation of mining waste rather than external material or solid ground. It is also the most common, holding back waste at mines across the world.

“We now understand that this type of dam needs to be treated carefully,” Mr. Abreu said.

It is still not known exactly why Fundao failed, but Mr. Abreu says it was probably the result of a loss of stability in the tailings foundation, a process known as liquefaction. This is usually caused by earthquakes but can result from other factors such as rapidly raising the dam’s walls, which in an upstream design are built inward on top of more dried tailings.

Under new rules to take effect this month or next, Mr. Abreu said miners will have to pay for an extra annual audit to check for liquefaction. Licensing will also set a height limit on the dams and require companies to specify from the outset how much waste the dam will hold and set a date for closure. Existing dams and mines that do not comply could be forced to close.

Mr. Abreu said he initially backed an outright ban on upstream dams but others on the task force persuaded him against it, saying it would be an over-reaction.

The proposed regulatory changes appear to have irked Vale, Brazil’s biggest miner and the world’s largest producer of iron ore.

In a rare public audience, Vale warned stricter licensing could cost it 100 million tonnes of iron ore production a year, about 8 per cent of the global sea-borne market. Thousands of jobs are at stake, it said, without specifically mentioning the dam collapse or regulatory changes. The company has also said the upstream design is as safe as other types.

Experts who oppose banning upstream admit the dams require more careful operation.

Joaquim Pimenta da Avila, a consultant who designed the Samarco dam but says changes were later made against his advice, thinks upstream dams are safe as long as they are correctly monitored. “The key is ensuring regulation works,” he said.

Brazil’s regulator is chronically underfunded. The Department of National Mineral Production (DNPM) only has 20 people to monitor Brazil’s mines, including 663 tailings dams.

Just one province in Canada, British Columbia, has eight specialist engineers for 68 tailings dams, and a recent audit said that still was not enough.

“Staffing is a serious issue. We can’t do everything,” said Walter Arcoverde, DNPM’s director of regulation, adding that the government has not committed to improve funding or staffing. “It’s being discussed.”

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