Tag Archives: tailings dam

Gold Ridge to restart within 18 months

Solomon Star | 11 August 2017

AXF Gold Ridge Pty Ltd of Australia says it has secured additional investor funding to start the immediate recommissioning of the Gold Ridge Mine Project.

“This investment will see mine production on track to start within 18 months,” a statement issued by the company on Wednesday stated.

“In an unprecedented partnership arrangement, Gold Ridge Community Investment Ltd (GCIL), which comprised the local land owners, owns 10% of Gold Ridge Mining Limited,” the statement added.

AXF Gold Ridge holds the balance of 90%.

The statement said additional capital and technical expertise from the Hong Kong publicly listed new shareholder Wanguo International Mining Group strengthens AXF Gold Ridge.

“New capital will help the Gold Ridge Mine Project reach its full potential.

“Wanguo International Mining Group led by Mingqing Gao has provided technical expertise to the Gold Ridge Mine Project for the past year.

“The strength of the partnership between landowners and AXF Resources, combined with the support from the government, has given Wanguo the confidence to commit as an investor to this project.”

Gold Ridge Mine’s principal landowners and community leaders confirmed their continued full support and commitment to the project during consultation.

Landowners agreed that by working together, the recommissioned Gold Ridge Mine would achieve new heights (Yu mi tugeda bae mekem Gold Ridge mine waka gud).

Richard Gu, Managing Director of the AXF Group and Director of AXF Gold Ridge Pty Limited, said:

“I feel humbled and proud that the project has reached this stage.

“I look forward to a long and fruitful development partnership with Gold Ridge Mine landowners, our investor, and the people and government of the Solomon Islands”.

Senior executives from AXF Gold Ridge including Chairman-elect Mingqing Gao, Richard Gu, and Dr Shaun Ren visited the Solomon Islands this week to celebrate the milestone with landowners and government officials.

At a meeting with Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, chairman-elect Mr Gao reinforced:

“The reopening of the Gold Ridge Mine will send a strong message to the investment community that the Solomon Islands is open for responsible and transparent mining business”.

Over the next 18 months, the come said the Gold Ridge mine site will undergo a complete refurbishment with infrastructure upgrades to improve site access and the construction of a new power station.

“An independent review of the tailings storage facility will be commissioned to minimise risk to local communities.

“Community relations activities will ramp up with one of the priorities the establishment of socially inclusive engagement mechanisms with landowners and local communities.”

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Another ‘world class’ mine embroiled in controversy

Report blasts Antofagasta Minerals’ Los Pelambres mine in Chile

Valentina Ruiz Leotaud | MINING.com | 22 May 2017

An 18-pages long report released today by the London Mining Network slams Antofagasta Minerals’ 60%-owned Los Pelambres copper mine, located in the central-northern of Chile in Coquimbo Region.

In a move that comes just a couple of days prior to Antofagasta’s annual general meeting in London, the document titled In the Valley of the Shadow of Death? A Report on Antofagasta Plc, Minera Los Pelambres and Los Caimanes, highlights allegations of corruption, environmental damage and water depletion caused by the project’s waste tailings dam.

According to the report, the El Mauro tailings dam, with a capacity of 1,700 million tonnes of mine waste, is the biggest in Latin America, surpassing Brazilian Samarco dam by 100 times. The magnitude of the dam, the dossier reads, is a cause of concern for both environmental groups and local residents, who think a similar the disaster to that that took place at Samarco in 2015 could happen in their own community.

Samarco’s breach was linked to small earthquakes and El Mauro’s facility not only is located in a highly seismic region, but it is also expected to grow in size as part of the Los Pelambres’ plans to expand production. “People living in the village of Caimanes would be expected to evacuate their homes within ten minutes of a breach at Antofagasta’s El Mauro dam,” the report states.

Los Pelambres has published a government-approved emergency plan, however, “residents’ attempts to access this plan using the Transparency Law have not been attended to,” today’s report adds.

Community concerns have resulted in a series of actions that date back to 2006 and that have delayed the company’s idea of building two new grinding mills and a desalination plant.

One of the major actions against the El Mauro tailings dam took place in July of 2013 when the Chilean Supreme Court ruled the tailings dam a “danger to human life” and made Minera Los Pelambres officially liable for any loss of human life in the event of a collapse of the dam.

El Mauro dam. Photo from Los Pelambres’ website.

Such ruling highlighted that the dam is constructed to withstand an earthquake of between 7.5 and 8.3 magnitude with an epicentre 80 km away, when the actual closest epicentre is just 60 km away. Thus, the company was ordered to submit the aforementioned emergency plan to reinforce the dam in case of an earthquake.

Later on, in May of 2014, Los Caimanes residents won a case against Minera Los Pelambres in the court of Los Vilos Province. The tailings dam was ruled a “Ruinous Work” (Obra Ruinosa – which asks for the demolition of the facility), in reference to the risk of the dam’s collapse in the event of an earthquake. However, the ruling was appealed in April of 2015, the company presented a safety action plan and a strategy to reduce the dam’s liquid content and, in the end, Los Pelambres won the appeal.

In October of that same year, in a case relating to the ongoing construction of the dam wall (“Obra Nueva”), the Chilean Supreme Court ordered Minera Los Pelambres to restore the free flow of uncontaminated water to the Pupio basin, where the tailings dam is located, and to do this by demolishing the tailings dam or by executing other actions that would help solve the situation. The company was permitted one month to present such alternative option.

In August of 2016, following an appeal of a prior decision against it by the Supreme Court, Los Pelambres was permitted to leave the dam in place, while improving its safety features and providing access to water in the area through pipes and tanks, rather than restoring the natural water flows.

The latter decision came following a May 2016 “Agreement of understanding and cooperation between the mining company and the residents of the Pupio valley,” which lays the groundwork for the expansion of the mine and tailings dam, or possible construction of another tailings dam in the area.

This agreement, says London Mining Network’s report quoting researchers and residents, had a lot of influence in the August of 2016 appeal and was led by lawyers that later on withdrew from the case. The document stated that families who signed would receive around £35,000 which, says LMN, wouldn’t sustain them for long. The activist group also says the money wouldn’t guarantee many of them the amount of land, or the standard of living, they had prior to the construction of the tailings dam.

On top of this, the report adds, the agreement would not compensate for the water scarcity caused in the area by the dam.

“Residents now rely on deliveries of bottled water for use in agriculture as well as human consumption. The river in the Pupio basin has had groundwater diverted away from El Mauro dam into wells; less water is readily available, and this water supply is likely to be contaminated.”

When it comes to claims of pollution, the document cites a 2012 independent investigation undertaken by Andrei Tchernitchin from the University of Chile, who found high levels of manganese, mercury, iron, nickel and molybdenum in water sources in the area, caused by permanently occurring leakages into the groundwater channels in the area.

The report also quotes a Chile’s environmental regulator 2016 charges against Los Pelambres for extracting water from unauthorized sites, building unapproved wells and failing to reforest some areas as required by law.

Minera Los Pelambres produces levels of around 400,000 tonnes of copper and 8,000 tonnes of molybdenum per year.

The company did not respond to MINING.com‘s request for comment by closing time.

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Solomon Islands Gold Ridge Mine Stori

gold-ridge-trucks

Ol mine trak long Goldridge mine long Guadalcanal, long Solomon Islands

Caroline Tiriman | ABC Radio Australia |13 September 2016

Wanpla land owna grup emi papa blong Gold Ridge Community Investment Limited (GCIL) long Solomon Islands itok oli hamamas olsem oli nap painim moni na halvim tu ikonomi blong kantri taem Gold Ridge mine bai stat wok ken.

Gold Ridge Community Investment Limited ibin baem despla mine long A$100 long  St Barbara wanpla mining kampani blong Australia long 2015.

Gavman itok  olsem emi no bin wanbel long pasin em St Barbara mine ibin mekim long lusim wok blong en long kantri.

Oli bin sutim tok long despla mine olsem emi no bin lukautim gut tailings dam we emi save putim ol posin pipia blong mine.

Taem despla dam ibin pulap emi save kapsaet na bagarapim ol wara na environment na despla isave bin kamapim planti wari long ol pipal.

Nau wanpla, Chinese-Australian property developer AXF i tingting long baem na wok wantem ol papa graon long ronim despla mine.

Walton Naezon, chairman blong Gold Ridge Community Investment Limited itokim  Radio Australia olsem bai oli givim mining plan igo long gavman long despla tupla wik ikam.

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Australian real estate investor circles Solomons ‘disaster’ gold mine

Children play in the Tinahulu River downstream from the Gold Ridge mine. (Stefan Armbruster SBS)

Children play in the Tinahulu River downstream from the Gold Ridge mine. (Stefan Armbruster SBS)

The Solomon Islands environment ministry has condemned the ‘immoral’ behaviour of an Australian miner for selling an abandoned gold mine to traditional landowners for A$100.

Stefan Armbruster | SBS World News| 3 September 2016

In the latest twist of the saga involving the troubled, 20-year-old operation, Chinese-Australian property developer AXF is now preparing to buy the mine. Sixteen months after the sale of Gold Ridge, the country is struggling to deal with its toxic tailings dam and is considering legal action.

St Barbara last year sold the site, with all legal liability, to a local traditional landowner company, Gold Ridge Community Investment Limited (GCIL).

The government declared the tailings dam a ‘disaster’ zone shortly afterwards over fears it would overflow, possibly undermining the dam wall, and cause a collapse releasing millions of tonnes of toxic sludge.

Earlier this year after heavy weather, the tailings dam full of sediments containing high levels of arsenic and cyanide, overflowed for the first time, sending millions of litres of untreated water into the local river systems.

Thousands of subsistence farming villagers live along the Tinahulu river and use it to wash, fish, cook, drink and swim.

“We are so worried because if the mining operations come again, we don’t know what is going to happen,” said John Kera, chief of New Rere village downstream from the dam.

However, the river diluted the tailings water and tests showed contamination was below World Health Organisation thresholds.

“Our immediate focus is on securing the tailings storage facility, knowing full well what the impacts would be on the downstream people,” said Dr Melchior Metaki, permanent secretary of the Department of Environment.

“The major pollutants (in the dam), arsenic and cyanide, are really high.”

The Solomons government is now relying on help from the UNDP, funded by the Australian government, to assess what the landowners have bought from St Barbara.

“Knowing full well the recipient (GCIL) doesn’t have requisite capacity and resources to adequately manage the tailings storage facility, in my view it’s not morally correct to do. It’s not morally right to do that,” said Dr Metaki.

“Common sense tells me it would not be accepted in Australia.

“Of course, legal recourse is something we’d need to be advised on how to properly take that forward.”

He added the landowners also bear some blame as: “it takes two people to put it down on paper”.

St Barbara in a statement said it: “does not comment on baseless speculation”, adding the “Solomon Islands Government was aware of the sale process and the sale outcome”.

“Many of the shareholders and directors of GCIL had personal associations with and concerns for the success of the Gold Ridge Project since it was first established in the mid-1990’s, with the GCIL chairman (Walton Naezon) being a former Minister of Mines and Energy.

Gold Ridge tailings dam spills untreated water in April 2016. (Stefan Armbruster SBS)

Gold Ridge tailings dam spills untreated water in April 2016. (Stefan Armbruster SBS)

“St Barbara has no liabilities or commitments in relation to Gold Ridge.”

St Barbara sold up after a year-long dispute with the Solomon Islands government that prevented dewatering of the full tailings dam.

Heavy flash flooding in 2014 shut the site down and it was looted until Australian Federal Police were flown in to protect the mine.

St Barbara lost about $300m while operating the mine and its share price jumped on news of the sale.

The Gold Ridge landowners say they have no regrets buying the mine.

“It’s time that my people had some ownership over the project,” said Walton Neazon.

“We took the liability on from St Barbara with the confidence we can handle this liability.”

“We have dewatered untreated water during height of bad weather at the beginning of this year (but) we have dewatered 1.3 million cubic meters of treated water,” Mr Neazon said describing it as being like “mineral water”.

The water level in the dam is now about two meters below the spillway.

At the height of the tailings spill, the health department issued a press release warning people not to use the river water and added, “finally if the dam wall breaks, there may be a risk of drowning or injury due to the increase water flow”.

The Australian-funded UNDP study will test the dam wall and “look at contingency planning should there be an extreme case,” said Mr Mataki.

“We cannot say it is safe because there hasn’t really been any structural integrity assessment done on the dam wall itself.”

Abandoned Gold Ridge mine processing plant. (Stefan Armbruster SBS)

Abandoned Gold Ridge mine processing plant. (Stefan Armbruster SBS)

As the Solomon Islands grapples with this man-made ‘disaster’, Gold Ridge landowners have been negotiating to sell the mine to a subsidiary of major Chinese-Australian property developer AFX, headed by Richard Gu.

“We had people in Australia check AFX, and we checked ourselves. Yes, we know it’s a property developer,” said Walton Naezon.

“AXF, regardless of their lack of knowledge of the mining industry, we want to partner with them because they’ve got the money to redevelop the mine.”

Landowners hope to sell a 90 per cent stake for an undisclosed amount.

The three-year-old AXF Resources has limited investments in gold and oil shale projects in Western Australia, New South Wales and Queensland.

Managing director Dr Shaung Ren has decades of experience in the mining industry and heads up a small team.

“We are working with consultants and other industry experts, some who have previous experience at Gold Ridge, to complete due diligence work with a view to repair, refurbish and upgrade the Gold Ridge plant to bring it back in to operation,” he said in a statement.

The sale has not been completed and conditions include “that the historic legal liability is either fixed or stays with the original owner”.

“Although this is the responsibility of the original owner, AXF has extended a credit facility to fund the management and operation of the water treatment plant to reduce water levels in the tailings storage facility.”

The department of environment’s ‘disaster’ declaration still stands and no mining can commence until it is lifted.

“This is a man-made, potential disaster, a new type of risk for us,” said Dr Metaki.

“The order made by the minister has not been lifted yet. Until we are satisfied that the measures that are in place can really reduce the risks associate with tailings storage facility, the minister will not be able to lift that state of disaster.”

There is no official estimate for the clean-up cost or remediation of the site.

“We will have to look at people who caused it in the first place,” Dr Metaki said.

“It is something the government cannot do because of the resource implications it has and because there has been negligence along the way.”

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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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