Tag Archives: Brazil

Brazil files homicide charges against Vale ex-CEO, 15 others in deadly 2019 dam collapse

Rescue operations underway in the wake of Vale’s Brumadinho dam collapse

Brazil prosecutions a stark contrast to the lack of corporate culpability in Papua New Guinea for a series of ‘world class’ environmental disasters and thousands of preventable deaths from river pollution…

Ana Paula Blower and Siobhán O’Grady | Washington Post | January 21, 2020

Prosecutors on Tuesday filed homicide charges against Fabio Schvartsman, the former CEO of the Brazilian mining conglomerate Vale, and 15 other people in the deadly dam collapse last year that killed at least 249 people.

The Minas Gerais state prosecutor’s office said it was bringing homicide and environmental charges against 11 people who worked for Vale and five who worked for the German safety-certification company TUV SUD. The companies will also face environmental charges.

The prosecutor’s office said the charges followed a nearly year-long investigation that concluded the dam posed a critical safety risk since at least 2017, and the situation worsened in 2018. In a statement, prosecutors accused Vale of hiding information related to the safety of the dams “from the government and society, including investors and shareholders of the company.”

They said investigators determined the alleged crimes were carried out in a way “that made it impossible or difficult for the victims to defend themselves — since the dam burst occurred abruptly and violently.”

In a statement, Vale said Tuesday that it would cooperate fully with authorities but “believes the accusations of fraud are perplexing.”

“It is important to note that other authorities are investigating the case and, at this point, it is premature to claim there was conscious assumption of risk to cause a deliberate breach of the dam,” the statement said.

Schvartsman’s lawyers said the charges against him were “hasty and unfair,” and should not have been determined before federal police finish their investigation.

Attorneys Pierpaolo Cruz Bottini, Mauricio Campos and Paulo Freitas said in a statement that Schvartsman took repeated measures to ensure dam safety at Vale, and opened an immediate investigation when the dam burst last year. They said authorities ignored documents submitted for the investigation that show the problems at the dam were not relayed to Schvartsman’s office.

“Those responsible must be held responsible for their actions,” the lawyers said. “But the attempt to punish those who, since the first hour, fulfilled their duty and stood by the authorities to investigate what happened and repair the damage, is unjust and regrettable.”

Vale and TUV SUD have faced scrutiny since the 280-foot tailings dam in the Minas Gerais municipality of Brumadinho collapsed last January, unleashing nearly 2 million cubic meters of toxic waste onto the mine’s offices and a nearby community. Torrents of mud swept away hundreds of people; some are still missing.

Schvartsman has been on leave since March. “Even totally assured of my righteous ways and having fulfilled my duty,” he wrote to company directors at the time, “I request the board to accept my temporary leave in the benefit of the company’s continued operations.”

TUV SUD said Tuesday it is “deeply affected” by the disaster, and “is still very much interested in clarifying the facts of the dam breach and therefore continues to offer its cooperation to the responsible authorities and institutions in Brazil and Germany in the context of the ongoing investigations.”

The company declined to offer further details Tuesday, citing “ongoing legal and official proceedings.”

Waste from the collapse on Jan. 25, 2019, blanketed miles of vegetation. Firefighters uncovered a bus carrying employees in the wreckage. All on board were dead.

Iara Murta, 58, fled her home with her two sisters. Speaking to The Washington Post in the aftermath, she said saw bodies and livestock stuck in the river of mud and mining runoff.

“It’s like watching the worst horror film,” she said.

In July, a Brazilian judge ordered Vale to cover all costs related to the dam’s collapse. Vale, based in Rio de Janeiro, said it would pay families more than $100 million.

Last year’s dam collapse shed light on the dangers of tailings dams, prompting reviews of other locations in Brazil where dams could be at risk for similar types of collapse.

A different Vale-operated dam burst in Minas Gerais in 2015, killing 19 people and displacing hundreds. After last year’s collapse, former environmental minister Marina Silva tweeted that “History is repeating itself,” and that “the government and the mining companies have learned nothing.”

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Safety first: Investors take action on mine tailings disasters

A rescue worker walks between destroyed houses after another dam disaster in Brazil.

Payal Sampat | EarthWorks | June 12, 2019

In late January 2019, the collapse of two tailings dams at Vale’s Brumadinho iron ore mine in Brazil killed hundreds of workers and local residents in the state of Minas Gerais. Even more horrifying, the Brumadinho catastrophe was a tragedy foretold, with unheeded prior warnings from mine inspectors and Vale’s own workers. This disaster came on the heels of other tailings disasters, notably at the Mount Polley gold and copper mine in Canada and the BHP-Vale owned Samarco iron ore mine in Mariana, Brazil.

How did one of the world’s largest mining companies, Vale, ignore the risks identified by workers and mine inspectors, and fail to learn from its previous tailings disaster?  How many more ticking time bombs around the world are endangering communities, workers, and ecosystems at this very moment?

Independent research that analyzes decades of data on mine waste dam failures has shown that these catastrophic tailings dam failures are occurring more frequently and are predicted to continue to increase in frequency. This is attributed to multiple factors, including inadequate tailings facilities design, age of facilities, unanticipated weather conditions due to climate change, and mining companies tapping lower grade ores, resulting in larger volumes of mine waste.

And yet, very little is known about these tailings storage facilities (TSFs) – their location, size, scale, ownership, even how many exist around the world.

This is about to change.

In April 2019, the Church of England pension funds and the Swedish Council of Ethics, representing a group of 96 investors with over $10 trillion in assets, launched the Investor Mining & Tailings Safety Initiative.  They sent letters to 683 mining companies, asking detailed questions about ownership, operating status, physical size, construction and independent risk assessment at their TSFs. These companies were given 45 days to respond, and were required to post this information publicly on their websites.

This is the first time that investors have demanded transparency and disclosure of mining companies on this scale – and this may well be the game-changing move that’s needed to understand and mitigate risks at TSFs.

The investor action has lit a fire under some of the world’s largest mining companies, many of whom have swiftly responded, publishing their disclosures to meet the June 7 deadline.  The Swiss mining company Glencore’s disclosure indicated that 14 of its facilities carry “extreme risk” in the event of failure – many in Peru – and another 100 are considered high-risk. Australian miner BHP, the world’s largest mining company, disclosed that five of its tailings dams were at “extreme consequence of failure,” and has set up a tailings task force to improve safety.

In May, the investor group, Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI), took another important action. PRI, along with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which published a rapid response assessment on tailings dam safety in 2017,  and the International Council on Mining and Metals, an association of 26 of the world’s largest mining companies, launched a Global Tailings Review process. At UNEP’s invitation, Earthworks agreed to serve on the multi-stakeholder advisory panel to the Global Tailings Review, which is chaired by Professor Bruno Oberle, former Swiss Secretary of State for the Environment. Other advisory panel members include IndustriALL Global Union, Munich Re, the International Finance Corporation, and the Columbia University Water Center.

Earthworks believes that the strongest outcomes will result from a process co-governed by civil society members, particularly mining-affected communities and workers representatives. We support processes that embody this commitment to co-equal governance, such as the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA). But this is an all hands-on-deck moment – and we will willingly pitch in to advance efforts that will shore up tailings dam safety, increase transparency, and protect people and the environment.

The world can no longer bear the costs of dragging feet, making excuses, or putting shareholder returns before people’s lives. Without exception, safety must be the leading priority at tailings dams and storage facilities around the world. Mining companies must act on the findings of their TSF reviews and ensure that risks to communities, workers and ecosystems are mitigated and managed as soon as possible.

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Vale says another ‘world class’ dam may collapse next week

Gongo Soco iron ore mine, in Brazil’s Minas Gerais state. (Image courtesy of Vale SA)

Reuters | May 17, 2019

Brazilian iron ore miner Vale SA told prosecutors in the state of Minas Gerais that a dam is at risk of rupturing at its Gongo Soco mine, about 40 miles from where its Brumadinho dam collapsed, killing more than 230 people.

According to a document published on Thursday, prosecutors said Vale is predicting the dam in the city of Barao de Cocais may collapse next week if the current rate of movement in the embankment of the mine pit close to the dam is maintained.

The warning underlines ongoing concern about the stability of dams in Brazil’s mining heartland of Minas Gerais in the aftermath of the Brumadinho accident, which itself came less than four years after another deadly dam collapse at a joint venture between Vale and BHP Group.

Vale said in a late afternoon statement it remained unclear whether the slippage in the embankment would actually trigger a collapse of the nearby Sul Superior dam, but said it was raising its level of alert and readiness for such an extreme case.

Earlier this week, Vale had identified movement close to the mine, which has not been active since 2016, the prosecutors said. About 500 people seen at risk from a collapse of the dam have been evacuated from their homes since February under orders from mining regulator ANM.

The dam holds 6 million cubic meters of mining waste, roughly half the amount that was released when the Brumadinho tailings dam burst in late January, burying nearby buildings including a company cafeteria and a bed and breakfast.

“If the movement of the northern embankment of the mine pit continues at the same pace, the rupture may happen between May 19 and May 25, which could cause liquefaction of the south dam,” the prosecutor’s document said.

Liquefaction, in which a dam’s barrier gets weakened as it turns to water, has been pegged as a likely cause of the Brumadinho collapse. Like Brumadinho, the dam at Gongo Soco has an upstream structure, known as the cheapest and least stable type of tailings dam design.

Vale shares fell 3.2% on Thursday, accelerating their drop after the reports on the potential dam burst. Prosecutors ordered Vale to issue urgent warnings about the risks to the local population.

Authorities in Brumadinho are still recovering bodies from the collapse of the Vale tailings dam there.

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Another Brazil dam in danger of collapse, mining company warns

FILE PHOTO: A member of a rescue team walks next to a collapsed tailings dam owned by Brazilian mining company Vale SA, in Brumadinho, Brazil February 13, 2019. REUTERS/Washington Alves

Diane Jeantet | Associated Press | March 24, 2019

Brazilian mining giant Vale announced communities in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais have been ordered to evacuate after independent auditors found one of its dams could collapse at any moment.

On Friday, the company raised the level of risk at a mining waste dam in the city of Barao de Cocais to three, the highest grade. According to Brazil’s mining and energy secretary, level three means that “a rupture is imminent or already happening.”

Residents within a 6-mile perimeter of the dam had already been told to leave by state authorities in February after Vale raised risk levels to grade two, a company spokesperson told the Associated Press. The spokesperson, who asked not to be identified, said 442 people had been relocated to temporary housing or with family members since February.

Lt. Col. Flavio Godinho, of the state’s civil defense department, told reporters that authorities are studying the Barao de Cocais structure to review the existing contingency plan.

“Any activity at the dam could trigger a rupture,” Godinho said on Globo TV.

The news comes nearly two months after another Vale-operated dam in the nearby city of Brumadinho collapsed, unleashing a wave of toxic mud that contaminated rivers and killed about 300 people.

The contamination of rivers with mining waste, or tailings, which contain high levels of iron-ore and other metals is of great concern and can last for years or even decades, experts say.

Brazilian environmental group SOS Mata Atlantica said it had proof of water contamination in the large Sao Francisco river as a result of the Brumadinho dam collapse. Hundreds of municipalities and larger cities such as Petrolina, 870 miles from Brumadinho, get drinking water from the Sao Francisco.

Brazil’s National Water Agency, which is carrying out its own water tests, denied further contamination of the Sao Francisco river, according to Globo’s news portal G1.

The type of structure used to hold back mining waste in Brumadinho was the same as the one currently in use in Barao de Cocais, which lies about 93 miles away.

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Brazil bans upstream mining dams after deadly Vale disaster

FILE PHOTO: A member of a rescue team walks next to a collapsed tailings dam owned by Brazilian mining company Vale SA, in Brumadinho, Brazil February 13, 2019. Picture taken February 13, 2019. REUTERS/Washington Alves/File Photo

Marta Nogueira | Reuters | 20 February 2019

Brazil’s government on Monday banned new upstream mining dams and ordered the decommissioning of all such dams by 2021, targeting the type of structure that burst last month in the town of Brumadinho, killing hundreds of people.

Those dams, which hold mining byproducts, are cheaper to build but present higher security risks because their walls are constructed over a base of muddy mining waste rather than on solid ground.

In January, one such dam operated by miner Vale SA, the world’s largest iron ore miner, collapsed, unleashing a wave of mud that bulldozed nearby structures and has likely killed more than 300 people.

The move by Brazil’s mining regulator, which would impact some 50 upstream mining dams in Brazil’s mining heartland of Minas Gerais state alone, is the strongest governmental response yet to the disaster.

The new regulation orders mining companies to present independently-produced decommission plans by August and ensure that those plans are executed by 2021.

The death toll rose to 169 people as of Sunday night, with 141 people yet to be located.

Several mid-level company executives have been arrested in the wake of the disaster, which comes less than four years after a similar deadly collapse at another upstream dam co-owned by Vale and BHP Group.

While Vale has said it considered the Brumadinho dam to be safe, an October 2018 report showed that the company classified the dam as being two times more likely to fail than the maximum level of risk tolerated under internal guidelines.

Around 200 residents were evacuated from an area near another dam operated by Vale late on Saturday, amid fears that it was structurally weak and could also collapse.

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The human cost of globalization

Barzil’s latest mining tragedy should be a wake-up call for citizens at both ends of the supply chain. Photograph: Douglas Magno/AFP/Getty Images

Eric Silverman | Metro West | 17 February 2019

Last month, a massive dam holding back a lake of waste from an iron ore mine collapsed in rural Brazil. The exact toll from the tsunami of metallic sludge is still unknown. At least 130 are confirmed dead but, as one elderly woman said, “It’s easier to count the living.” Hundreds remain missing. Some bodies will likely never be exhumed from the muck. Surely you heard about the disaster, expressed momentary horror, then went about your daily life as if such matters did not concern you. They do.

Like it or not, your hand – all of our hands – helped breach that dam. Those who benefit most from the global economy have equally global moral responsibility.

If you’re reading this newspaper in Massachusetts, glance outside your window. See any mines? Count yourself lucky. The largest such chasm in Boston was the Big Hole formerly occupied by Filene’s Basement. Actually, we’re not lucky at all, just rich. Most of us in MetroWest don’t want mining. We prefer other, far safer jobs, never mind backyards unblighted by large-scale resource extraction. And we have the affluence and power to make corporate and government leaders take heed. Not so the poor souls recently entombed in the mud.

Most Americans look to nature for rest and relaxation. We sojourn in the forest, like Thoreau, to “learn what it had to teach.” Others sell their woods and hills to survive. It is far better to be on the buying end of consumerism than the giving end of iron ore and other raw materials. Just ask the people of Vila Ferteco, the community downstream from the shattered dam.

Or ask anybody at the fringes of the world system. I know some of them well, having lived and studied as an anthropologist in a community along the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea. They have little political voice, less money, and no position of privilege that would cause corporate directors or public officials to take notice. That’s why their society is at risk from one of the largest gold and copper deposits in the Asia-Pacific region, the Frieda River mine, now under development by an Australian company, PanAust, which is a subsidiary of a Chinese government entity. Many people along the Sepik River are speaking out against this mine. Few seem to care or listen, especially shareholders and consumers on the other side of the world who will someday reap the lion’s share of the mine’s benefits.

There are few opportunities for a paycheck in the developing world, never mind a job that would pass muster by the workplace safety regulations that protect your own labor. More than 750 million people, mostly in the Global South, have less than a $1.90 a day in their pockets. What they have, however, are the natural resources – minerals, timber, oil, and gas – that are fed to factories in Nigeria, India, and Guangzhou, then shipped as the myriad products that arrive by Amazon on our doorsteps. It’s not so far from Bangladesh or Brumadinho to the local mall.

Nobody gives up their land because they find pleasure in open-pit mining. They do so because they have as much choice in the matter as they do clout in the boardroom or parliament. Corporations know this well, and so do as they please in distant places beneath the palm trees, at least those that remain standing after clearcutting for palm oil plantations. The end result is what just happened in Brazil.

The Global South is the resource Wal-Mart for the industrialized world, only with worse wages and no health care benefits.

The poisonous sludge that murdered a town last week came from a mine owned by a Brazilian company, Vale SA. The same firm, together with the Anglo-Australian giant BHP Billiton, owned another Brazilian mine where a collapsed dam killed more than a dozen in 2015. BHP Billiton once operated the Ok Tedi Mine in Papua New Guinea that discharged 90 million tons of waste into the local river system – about 500 square miles – for more than a decade. Half the river, reported The Australian Conservation Foundation, was “almost biologically dead.” The cultural survival of its indigenous communities remains at risk. Across the border in the Indonesian province of Papua, the U.S.-based company Freeport-McMoRan runs the world’s most profitable gold mine. Some of those profits, reported by The New York Times, went into the pockets of military and police officials to ‘secure’ the site.

Needless to say, major Western banks and investment firms, such as Vanguard, Blackrock, State Street, Fidelity, Citicorp, Bank of America, and John Hancock, pour assets into these mines, maybe even some of your own retirement funds, just as the mines pour their toxic waste down nearby hills and waterways.

There is no shortage of blame. Corrupt politicians. Greedy Wall Street financiers. Multinational corporations and the glossy PR firms they hire to promote ‘global citizenship.’ But most of the blame rests with you and I – everyday people content with our own lives and things, and thus unwilling to consider the human cost of globalization and to demand a more ethical capitalism. It’s time we did. Before another town in a far-flung place most of us can’t find on a map is buried beneath indifference.

Eric Silverman, a former Research Professor of Anthropology, lives in Framingham. He is now affiliated with the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandies University.

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Terrifying moment of Brazil dam collapse caught on camera

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