Full scale and long-term effects of Brazil’s ‘worst environmental disaster’ remain unclear

The muddy remains of the town of Bento Rodrigues. (Photo credit: Sam Cowie)

Brazil’s Mariana mining disaster, in which a large dam holding toxic mining waste burst last month,  is now considered  the country’s worst environmental disaster in history. The sludge buried an entire town under mud laced with heavy metals, killed several people, left hundreds homeless, poisoned water supplies and caused environmental damage that is yet to be fully calculated. FSRN’s Sam Cowie traveled to the disaster scene in Minas Gerais and filed this report.

Download Audio

Twenty-eight-year-old Wallison Henrique de Souza was at home in the town of Bento Rodrigues when the privately managed Fundao Dam burst on November 5th, sending millions of tons of toxic mining waste rushing downstream. He says a friend came to his house to warn him and together they ran to the hills for safety.

“A colleague of mine arrived and said that the dam had burst,” de Souza recalls. “We knew we had to get out otherwise we might all be killed. So we ran to the hills for safety.”

Shortly after, an enormous wave of toxic mud wiped the town off the map. De Souza and some 600 others lost their homes.  Altogether, 16 people were killed and three are still missing.

Speaking from the muddy remains of Bento Rodrigues, Souza said that he felt empty. “My life is here under this mud, 28 years,” he explains.

The tailings dam was owned and operated by Samarco, a joint venture between Brazil’s mining giant Vale and Anglo Australian BHP Billiton.

From Bento Rodrigues, the first affected town, the toxic mud traveled across two Brazilian states via the Doce River before spilling into Atlantic Ocean.

At this month’s UN climate conference in Paris, Brazilian president Dilma Rouseff described the event as “the worst environmental disaster Brazil has ever seen,” and blamed the disaster on the “irresponsible action of the company.”

The Brazilian government initially fined Samarco the equivalent of $265 million, but later increased the amount to $5 billion.

The company is also paying to temporarily house displaced residents  like Wallison Henrique de Souza, whose homes were destroyed. Local residents argue that doesn’t go nearly far enough to repair the damage caused by the flood of toxic mining waste.

In Barra Longa, a small town 40 miles from the burst dam, affected residents say Samarco and local government’s response was slow and ineffective.

Francisco Marcelino, a retired driver whose house was flooded by six feet of mud laced with arsenic and other toxins, said that the first people to arrive and help were volunteers from churches across the nation.The Samarco workers didn’t come for nearly a week after, he said.

“It was the worst thing I had ever seen. Horrible,” Marcelino says. “Never want to see something like that again in my life, are you crazy?”

To date, the cause of the dam burst remains undetermined. An official investigation is under way.

Experts, however, say there was a clear failure by the company to avert the disaster and to minimize subsequent damages.

In a report commissioned by the United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights, analysts note that affected residents did not receive official warnings about the burst, despite a ten hour gap between the burst and when the toxic mud hit the first town. They say timely action could have saved lives and possessions.

The full extent of the environmental damage is unknown. Experts estimate that the region could take from 10 to 50 years to recover, if it does at all. A full environmental assessment by independent contractors is yet to be made.

The toxic mud has polluted the 500- mile-long River Doce; turning it orange, killing fish, fauna and flora, and polluting area drinking water supplies.

Speaking from his boat on the now orange River Doce in Periquito, around 200 miles from the main spill, fisherman Moises Gomes said that no one has come to inform local fishermen about the scale of the pollution and its implications. He picks a floating dead fish out of the river, pulling it apart and exposing its mud-filled insides.

“The fish will come back eventually. But how are we supposed to get by in the meantime?” Gomes asks. “The companies involved need to create some kind of mechanism that guarantees us the right to work and feed our families.”

Thousands of fishermen directly depend on the river for their livelihoods. Several fishing unions have launched law suits against Samarco.

Vale and BHP Billiton, the mining firms behind Samarco, have said that restoration of the Rio Doce is among their top priorities.

In the last twenty years, at least four similar, albeit smaller-scale, mining incidents have occurred in the Minas Gerais region.

Dantes Pesce, a member of the UN business and human rights commission, says that adequate regulation in Brazil’s mining sector exists more in theory than in practice and enforcement is insufficient. He says that when it comes to big projects, economic concerns trump social and environmental ones and that fines for bad practices are relatively light.

“So basically, it’s a very negative incentive to be a risk taker regarding environmental and social impacts, because even if you actually do everything wrong, at the end of the day, it will not cost you that much,” Pesce points out. “Even if everything is against, let’s say, the evidence is clear to condemn corporate practices, the fines are very low and therefore, there is an incentive to take more risks on board, regarding negative impact, than you should.”

The Mariana mining disaster has caused enormous social and environmental damage and experts say unless regulation is more tightly enforced in Brazil’s mining sector, a similar incident could happen again. There are more than 750 dams just in the Minas Gerais region, 40 of which are considered at risk.

The government has frozen the domestically-held assets of Vale and BHP Billiton until the companies pay their $5 billion fine.

You may also like...