MAC: Mines and Communities

Samarco tsunami: "There may never be an effective remedy for victims"

Published by MAC on 2015-11-27
Source: Statement, Brasil de Fato, Guardian, PlanetArk

BHP Billiton and Vale still in denial

Following the tsunami of mud and water that spewed from the collapsed Samarco tailings dams in Brazil three weeks ago, two UN-appointed  independent experts have come up with startling new findings. 

John Knox, the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment says that the Rio Doce has now become "the equivalent of 20,000 Olympic swimming pools of toxic mud waste contaminating the soil, rivers and water system of an area covering over 850 kilometers".

He says the river "is now considered by scientists to be dead and the toxic sludge is slowly working its way downstream towards the Abrolhos National Marine Park where it threatens protected forest and habitat...[T]he mud has already entered the sea at Regencia beach, a sanctuary for endangered turtles and a rich source of nutrients that the local fishing community relies upon.”

The experts conclude that: “There may never be an effective remedy for victims whose loved ones and livelihoods may now lie beneath the remains of a tidal wave of toxic tailing waste, nor for the environment which has suffered irreparable harm". 

Slowly - but fitfully - the manifold impacts of the catastrophe, as testfied to by local people, are beginning to filter through to the outside world (see first article below). So is the deplorable failure of the companies responsible (BHP Billiton and Vale) to meaningfully address the consequences of the disaster.

Carlos Pinto, who heads a Minas Gerais state-appointed team of environmental prosecutors says:"You can’t measure the values yet, the dimension, the proportion of this damage”, adding “It is still very premature to appoint a specific cause but we have ruled out mischance or a mere accident.”

Meanwhile, theories about the cause of the catastrope abound, while Samarco (the joint BHP Billiton and Vale mining venture) claims its own tests had indicated there were no "anomalies" in the dams before the event.

And, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, the two companies also deny that the tailings were toxic.

The pathways from mining to muck

The rupture of the tailings dams in Mariana is being classified as the worst disaster in the mining sector in Brazil. It is not yet possible to measure the impacts of the flooding.

19 November 2015

By Joana Tavares (translator Judith Marshall)

Brasil de Fato article

From Mariana in Minas Gerais state

In Lower Paracatu, a small district in Mariana, in the Central Region of Minas Gerais, almost all of the houses, the school, the bars, the shops, the church and the town square are covered or buried in muck. It arrived three hours after the ruptures in the tailings ponds at Fundão and Santarém, belonging to Samarco mining company, in the Bento Rodrigues district, also in Mariana.

Two weeks after the terror began, the community looks like a war zone: the spaces that used to be streets - now slippery tracks of heavy muck – are deserted. Abandoned dogs roam about in search of clean water. There are a few trucks and scoop shovels that are slowly removing some of the refuse. The few men at work are from one of the companies subcontracted by Samarco such as Integral. The majority of the workers who were in the mine when the tailings dams ruptured were also employed by Integral.

In front of a house that was both imposing and impeccably clean, without a trace of muck, there were four workers, equally clean, engaged in tending the plants. Not one of them was willing to identify himself or talk to the reporter – “Samarco itself is the only one to be talking” according to one – but in the end the workers let slip that the house was a country residence owned by a Director of Vale, the company that owns 50% of the shares of Samarco, as part of a joint venture with another mining giant, BHP Billiton.

The Director, however, is not there. Also absent are the the Fire Department Rescue Team, the Military Police and Social Welfare. Not a single representative from local or state government is present to accompany in any way the work being carried out by the Integral employees or to converse with the few people who still remain in the small ghost town.

And it would appear that this same situation prevailed in the preceding days. And even on the actual day of the tragedy. The residents say they were at the community soccer pitch, waiting for a game to start, at about 8 pm, when a Fire Department helicopter passed by, advising them that they had 15 minutes to leave the area. They already knew about the disaster that had taken place in Bento Rodrigues, many kilometers away, but they were not assuming that the muck would also arrive to inundate their homes.

The helicopter warned them to evacuate but nobody landed to help with the forced departure. No official – from government or the company – accompanied the community at the moment when the water from the Gualaxo do Norte river was transformed into a flow of heavy muck containing organic material, bodies of animals and mortal remains. The muck invaded the lives of more than 300 people who live in Lower Paracatu. Divino dos Passos, one of the few who has continued to live there, despite the lack of water, power and information, had this to say.

“For all my life, this has been a good place to live. It had a church that people came to every Sunday. People were shocked at what happened. God protected my house and it was not affected. This is my property right here and I am not going away and leaving it behind. People here are poor. I struggled a lot to get this. “

But he does not believe that the companies must take any responsibility for the situation. He does not believe it or he prefers not to say: “This is just about fate. I cannot say that the mining company is to blame. I blame life. I cannot say the mining company is rotten. Here in this region many people get work in the mines. So people cannot say the mining companies are rotten. You get it, don’t you?” Up until now the only people who have come by offering any assistance to Divino are workers from the company. They offered him water and “a few things to repair the house.”

Divino’s wife and children went to “hotels” and inns in the city of Mariana, along with the majority from their community and those from Bento Rodrigues. Access to these locations is controlled by company functionaries. There are no closets or places to wash clothes or space. Other people have gone to live in the houses of relatives in diverse municipalities and districts through the region and are not receiving any assistance.

Toxic Muck

The script being played out in Lower Paracatu is being repeated in dozens of cities and districts directly affected throughout the region: lack of information, lack of support, neglect, fear. In Barra Longa, a municipality 60 km from the site of the dam rupture, the muck arrived twelves hours later. Also without previous warning. Rafaela Siqueira Mol, a trader, remembers the terror of November 5 at dawn. She was helping her aunt, Dona Margarida, pack up her embroidered garments – in preparation for a craft fair – when the water arrived. It was so heavy that it was difficult to open the door to get out of the house. “The river was slowly filling up. There was a lot dirt, but people were saying they would not leave even if they were carried out in their beds. I remember that a policeman came at about three in the morning and said that everything would be flooded.”

Dona Margarida lived on the main square of Barra Longa. This pleasant square, on one side of which is the gate to the city, was inundated with muck. During the week after the spill, a leg was found amidst the debris. More than three meters of mud covered the house of the embroiderer, who lost everything.

The residents worked collectively in relays to help each other. But without support from the mayor’s office, the city councillors or the company. What you could see was the same contract workers, alongside the population, cleaning up the mess. Also without notification of where the tailings debris was to be sent.

The muck that destroyed the community of Bento Rodrigues and killed dozens of people (the official number, by the way, is 11 but there are estimates of many more) razed Lower Paracatu, flooded the square of Barra Longa, and later reached dozens of rural communities and districts such as Gesteira, Paracatu de Cima, Ponte do Gama, Pedras, Campinas, among others, in the Mariana region.

The muck continues on its way towards the basin of the river called Sweet River. The community of Governador Valadares, 300 km away, was left without water for seven days. It reached Colatina, in the neighbouring state of Espírito Santo. It will eventually reach the sea and have an impact on millions of quilometers of water in the ocean. The death of fish in spawning areas is already being lamented by fishing communities. The impact on aquatic life in general is impossible to measure.

Eduardo Barcelos, a professor at the Joaquim Venâncio Politechnical School/Fiocruz and an environmental specialist trained by UFOP, has stressed that the muck, in addition to its toxic components, is also carrying with it other materials. These include organic matter (plants, animals, people, pastures, plantations) and remains of buildings, septic tanks, sewage drains and other debris. The muck is hard, it appears like cement and can be seen many meters above the rivers that criss-cross the region.

“This material is a mixture of water with mud that comes from the processing of the iron. This mud contains metals, with toxic and carcinogenic components. The concentration of these metals in the body – not just the human body – but in the soil, in the waters, in the animals, could generate serious consequences. The metabolic reaction to the metal is not immediate, but happens over the medium and long term.

Professor Barcelos also draws attention to the fact that the rainy season, which goes from November to February. is just beginning in Minas Gerais. And since the region is hilly, the muck will flow even faster. This flood is not going to be contained in one area. It is going to reach many other places.”

The environmental bodies are slow in giving their official opinions about the composition of the muck. Faced with this delay, social forces have mobilized – including with collective financial support – and produced some studies. Samarco and Copasa deny the existence of heavy metals in the water, but independent specialist opinions and another investigation carried out at the request of the Baixo Guandu City Council in Espirito Santo state, contest these denials.

The Minas Gerais Water Management Institute (Igam in Portuguese) released preliminary results from its analysis, saying “to the preliminary results of dissolved oxygen parameters, pH, electrical conductivity and turbidity in the water, it was found that these two points presented results of dissolved oxygen and turbidity at odds with the regulations.”

This same kind of obscure language with little or no clarity is being used by other public bodies, all of them dodging from the public demands for conclusive replies, including addressing fears of a rupture in the third dam, Germano, which is three times the size of Fundão.

Threat of Germano

The ghost of Germano has already been circulating in the region for many years. There has already been talk of the risk of a rupture in this immense tailings dam since at least 2005. Germano is the oldest dam in the region, built in 1978. Workers have been afraid to stay there at night. Santarém and Fundão, the neighbouring dams, are much smaller. Twelve days after the rupture, Samarco maintained that only the Fundao tailings pond had leaked, but community resident believe this is not really so. And they live, tortured by the fear of an even greater “accident.”

In its press releases, Samarco affirms that it began containment measures for the Sweet River on November 18 and that it is carrying out work on the Germano and Santarém tailings dams that will take three months to complete. It says it will carry out 24 hour monitoring throughout the region and that if there is another rupture, this time the warning sirens will be functioning. The company admits there is a risk.

The origin of the mines in Minas Gerais state

The mining is as old as the region. It began in colonial times. In other words it was here in this region that Minas Gerais was founded 300 years ago, linked to the exploration of gold mines. When the cycle of gold mining was exhausted, it was iron’s turn. And in the small cities people have inscribed in their memories what they heard from their grandparent, who in turn had heard it from their grandparents: when there is mining, there are jobs. It means money.

The old houses of the mining barons are today the head offices or properties of the mining companies. There are many active mines – such as Timbopeba, Alegria, Fábrica Nova, São Luís – others are deactivated while yet others are poised to begin operations. There are basically two companies operating iron mines, Vale and Samarco. We are talking about the “Mariana Complex”.

Mining Processes

Iron mining is carried out more or less as follows: a mine is identified (a hill or a mountain) with a concentration of iron. The mining companies start the ore extraction process, excavating and using explosives to break up the rock. Next the ore goes through processes of crushing and grinding, to reduce the size of the rocks until they finally turn to iron powder. This is all done in specific sections of the mining complex and does not involve use of water. The material that remains after this process is labelled sterile In the areas where this waste is dumped, the soil is made unsuitable for agriculture or any other activity.

The next step is flotation to carry out further refining. This involves water. In this phase, they use reagents to separate out the iron such as amina, a nitrogen compound. The remains of this compound will be thrown out, along with the contaminated water, into the tailings pond. In the region, there are three main, interlinked dams that receive the tailings from the various mines. They are: Fundão, Santarém and Germano, the biggest and oldest of the three. They are being monitoed by Samarco.

Afterwards, the powdered iron is sent for the final processing, where it is refined and formed into pellets, the end product. These are small silver-colored balls that become the raw material for the production of steel and its derivatives.

Some of the pellets are transported by rail – in this case, the link is between Vitória-Minas, to the port of Tubarão, in Vitória (Espirito Santo state). Some iron, still in the form of ore pulp, is sent through pipelines. Samarco owns three pipelines for carrying ore from Minas. The pipelines run from the region of Mariana to Anchieta, also in Espirito Santo. There they are formed into pellets. These gigantic ducts use water as their main conductor and function 24 hours/day. According to the National Committee in Defence of Territories from Mining, they use an average of 4.400 m³ of water per hour.

There are few steel mills in Minas Gerais which give added value to the iron pellets by transforming them into steel or metal alloys. A large percentage of the pellets goes to China, which then sells electronic consumer goods and other products to Brazil.

Licenses and conditionalities

“The only solution offered by mining companies today for dealing with the tailings from iron mines is tailings ponds. No other technology exists today”, according to the explanation of environmental engineer Eduardo Barcelos. He goes on to explain that iron mining needs to extract large quantities of material if it is to be profitable. “Therefore iron megamines produce huge amounts of tailings. And the only solution they know for dealing with them is this one” he adds.

The mines, crushers and dams have to be licensed by the state. Currently this process is carried out through the Environmental Policies Council (Copam in Portuguese) and other bodies. But this does not guarantee equal participation by civil society, which has less representation than the companies and is required to justify its vote with proof, in the case of a vote against a project. If there is agreement, it is enough just to say “yes”.

For a license to be granted, conditionalities are established, with steps that the company has to implement in order to become operational. Each environmental license is valid for a specific length of time. When it is renewed, new conditionalities are requested, with monitoring and communications programs with the communities.

Marcilene Ferreira, from the National Network of Popular Lawyers, lives in Catas Altas and accompanied closely the whole licensing process. She explained that, since the tailings dams are old, the processes are mixed together, often without requiring that the condtionalities are satisfied. She stresses the responsibility of state bodies for letting licenses be renewed without fulfillment of the conditionalities and/or with postponement of fulfillment of company responsibilities.

This is what happened at the Fundão tailings dam. In 2007, an evaluation of rupture possibilities was due. This conditionality was repeated in the revalidation of the license in 2013, along with the elaboration of an emergency plan to prepare communities for situations that put people at risk. In 2014, Samarco advised that government that it would not carry out this emergency preparation plan. “There was no plan for evacuation or even a mechanism to alert people like sirens”, she points out.

Residents of Bento Rodrigues, the community closest to the dams, recount that the ways families were advised about the rupture was through a contract worker, who got on his motorcycle alerting people of the need to evacuate the area. Even twelves hours later, in a place like Barra Longa, there were no warnings from Samarco that would have allowed the population to protect its possessions.

New Law

At the beginning of October, Governor Fernando Pimentel, from the Workers Party, introduced an urgent bill to the Minas Gerais Legislative Assembly. The new law, Law 2.946/2015, would introduce changes to the State Environmental System (Sisema in Portuguese), with the intent of, among other things, giving “more flexibility to the licensing processes”. If passed, the decision to grant or not grant a license would be made exclusively by the Executive.

Marcilene criticizes the proposed law and explains: “It is as if people are giving a free hand to the Governor. If he wants to speed up the granting of a particular license, he can do so with the stroke of a pen, without even consulting the Legislature”.

She goes on to say that changes in the legislation are necessary. The main one is the participation of affected communities in all the steps of the process and not just in the preliminary licensing, as is the case now. “We need measures to strengthen the inputs from public bodies and prevent self-regulation by the companies,” she asserts.

On the day after the rupture of the dam, during the Brazilian Mining Forum which takes place in Belo Horizonte, Altamir Roso, the State Secretary for Economic Development, classified Samarco as “victim of a rupture”. Furthermore he suggested that environmental monitoring should cease to be carried out by the State and become the responsibility of private sector initiatives.

Privatization and Vale

“There is no governance over mineral resources in Brazil, there is no state policy. Since the privatization of Vale, it is the companies that define mining policy in the country” according to Maria Júlia Gomes Andrade, from the Movement for Popular Sovereignty over Mining. She cites as examples the rate of mining expansion, the model for granting concessions, the investment of resources and the legal loopholes favoring the companies, to the detriment of the affected communities.

In 1996, former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso sent the Kandir Law to Congress. This law exempted all companies that exported raw materials, such as mining, from paying the state tax for the Circulation of Goods and Services (ICMS in Portuguese. With the Kandir Law in effect, billions that should have been paid in taxes were withheld. Companies also had exemptions from other payments (like discounts on water and electricity).

One year later, the state mining company, Vale do Rio Doce (CVRD in Portuguese), with assets valued at the time at R$ 30 billion was sold for R$ 3.3 billion. The process was full of irregularities and still questioned by the courts up to today.

Regulatory Code

Since 2013, the Chamber of Deputies has been discussing a new law that would restructure the regulatory code for mining. Some of the main points are the CFEM tax (these are mining royalties), the way mining exploration concession are determined and the creation of a national agency to regulate the sector.

Movements and civil society organizations have questioned the contents of the new code, pointing out that it does not include any level of social or environmental protection for those affected. They argue that mining in the country is about more than a discussion focussed on administration and revenue. Maria Julia criticizes the process, saying “In practice, this code as it stands wants only to intensify production while the communities that live in the mining areas are made even weaker and while the mechanisms to protect water and the over-all environment become even more flexible. During the discussion about the mining code, the companies were consulted but the population had very little space for genuine participation.”

The special Commission set up to analyze the text failed to meet the formal deadline and Eduardo Cunha, from the PMDB party in Rio, created another Commission in October, which is still waiting for indicators from the partes in order to begin to operate. This week, after the tragedy in Mariana, Cunha announced that he was going to raise the issues again as a matter of urgency.

Leonardo Quintão (PMDB party, Minas Gerais), was the reporter from the earlier Commission, and is a strong defender of the mining companies in the Chamber. Almost half, 42%, of the costs of his electoral campaign were financed by the mining sector. Quintao was quoted in Exame magazine as saying “The environmental sector that does not want (to vote) is against mining in Brazil. But my state (Minas Gerais} depends on mining, human life depends on it (on mining).”

Companies and the State

Vale, which holds half the shares in Samarco, with the other half held by BHP Billiton, the biggest mining company in the world, has not issued an official statement, except the classical laments. It is Samarco that has responded to the event. It was in the Samarco head office in Mariana that state governor Fernando Pimental met with the press during the week-end of the tragedy. The Samarco office is headquarter for the Military Police, Civil Defence staff, Rescue Squad and others. It is their employees that stay in the hotels, preventing access and blocking the way to Bento Rodrigues. It was the Samarco Director of Operations and Infrastructure, Kleber Terra, who said to the media that the company “did not need to apologize to the population.”

The company has said that it is carrying out work to contain the tailings ponds and give assistance to those affected. According to a press release, “Samarco is focussing on the mitigation of the social and environmental consequences with total commitment both to society and the environment, and with provision of all assistance necessary.” This was issued after Samarco’s president had his request for habeas corpus granted by the Court of Justice in Espirito Santo. This prevents him from being take prisoner during the criminal investigation being carried out over the causes of the rupture.

In addition to the investigations being carried out by the Civil and Federal Police, the President’s office at Federal level and the state government have created a “Committee to Manage and Evaluate the Responses.” The Legislative Assembly has set up a special commission on tailings dams which is carrying out hearings on the case.

“It is evident that the company, Vale, was operating with a complete lack of responsibility. Without minimizing the responsibility of the State, the direct responsibility was theirs. This is one of the points we are going to analyze. A second point we are going to explore is what is the scope of mining in Minas,” said Rogerio Correa, reporter for the Commission and state deputy from the Workers Party. After the documentation is collected and forwarded, a decision will be made about whether to set up a commission of inquiry (CPI in Portuguese).

Negotiations and expectations

The Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB), which has accompanied those affected since the day of the tragedy, jointly with the Archdiocese of Mariana and other organizations, has submitted a document to the governor and the president with an emergency plan to care for the families affected. The plan includes payment of a minimum salary per person and adequate housing, among other things. It also includes a resettlement of good quality, restructuring of productive activities, a survey of the damages and a plan for recuperation of the entire basin and “full participation of the people affected in all the steps of the process.”

Last Wednesday (November 18), MAB, the people affected, the archdiocese and others had a first meeting with representatives from the mining company, in a negotiating table mediated by the government. Joceli Adrioli from the board of MAB denounced Samarco for violating one of the fundamental rights of those affected, the right to self-organize.

Beatriz Cerqueira, President of the CUT in Minas, also reinforced the chorus against the postures assumed by the company and the government. “Samarco is openly threatening the city of Mariana with its economic power and with the impact that any suspension of its work in the region would have. Many political leaders are already into pay-off mode for the investments that the mining companies made in their campaigns during the 2014 elections. The truth of the matter is that the ones paying this bill are the people”. This is how Cerqueira evaluates the meetings in which she has participated.

The movements and organizations involved in accompanying those affected are constantly expanding: we still have no idea of the dimensions of the tragedy. It has no precedents in the history of mining in Brasil. It brings out all the contradictions of the extractive model on the environment and the communities, as well as the role of the companies and the state.

It reflects a model that is followed in operations not just in Mariana but throughout the country. “We cannot accept that our communities should have to suffer this impact. We cannot tolerate this affront, the way that information is being denied by the companies and the neglect of the people who lost their cherished loved ones and the structure of their life. BHP Billiton and Samarco – that is really Vale – are exploiting everything here but we do not see any sign of the money. Vale, which was originally named Sweet River Valley Company, has now killed the Sweet River. This is the judgment of Sandra Vita, member of a community association near to Caraca Hill who lives in the Morro Agua Quente district, close to Catas Altas.

Translator: Judith Marshall

Brazilian mine disaster: “This is not the time for defensive posturing” – UN rights experts

25 November 2015

GENEVA – Two United Nations independent experts on environment and toxic waste today called on the Government of Brazil and relevant businesses to take immediate action to protect the environment and health of communities at risk of exposure to toxic chemicals in the wake of the catastrophic collapse of a tailing dam on 5 November 2015.

“This is not the time for defensive posturing,” said the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, John Knox, and the Special Rapporteur human rights and hazardous substances and wastes, Baskut Tuncak. “It is not acceptable that it has taken three weeks for information about the toxic risks of the mining disaster to surface.”

“The steps taken by the Brazilian government, Vale and BHP Billiton to prevent harm were clearly insufficient. The Government and companies should be doing everything within their power to prevent further harm, including exposure to heavy metals and other toxic chemicals,” they stressed.

New evidence shows the collapse of a tailing dam belonging to a joint venture of Vale and BHP Billiton (Samarco Mining S.A.), which released 50 million tons of iron ore waste, contained high levels of toxic heavy metals and other toxic chemicals in the river Doce. Hospitals in Mariana and Belo Horizonte, the capital city of Minas Gerais State have received several patients.

“The scale of the environmental damage is the equivalent of 20,000 Olympic swimming pools of toxic mud waste contaminating the soil, rivers and water system of an area covering over 850 kilometers,” Mr. Knox warned.

The expert noted that the Doce River, one of Brazil’s great water sheds, “is now considered by scientists to be dead and the toxic sludge is slowly working its way downstream towards the Abrolhos National Marine Park where it threatens protected forest and habitat. Sadly the mud has already entered the sea at Regencia beach a sanctuary for endangered turtles and a rich source of nutrients that the local fishing community relies upon.”

“The Brazilian authorities should assess whether Brazil’s laws for mining are consistent with international human rights standards, including the right to information,” said Mr. Tuncak, who recently presented a special report* on the right to information in the context of hazardous substances to the UN Human Rights Council.

“Under international human rights standards, the State has an obligation to generate, assess, update and disseminate information about the impact to the environment and hazardous substances and waste, and businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights, including conducting human rights due diligence,” the expert stressed.

The Special Rapporteurs stated that “this disaster serves as yet another tragic example of the failure of businesses to adequately conduct human rights due diligence to prevent human rights abuses.”

“There may never be an effective remedy for victims whose loved ones and livelihoods may now lie beneath the remains of tidal wave of toxic tailing waste, nor for the environment which has suffered irreparable harm,” they said. “Prevention of harm must be at the center of the approach of business whose activities involve hazardous substances and wastes.”

(*) Check the report on the right to information in the context of hazardous substances (A/HRC/30/40): 

Mr. John Knox (USA) was appointed the Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations related to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment by the UN Human Rights Council in 2015 for a second term. The Council requested Mr. Knox, to convene a seminar on the effective implementation of human rights obligations relating to the environment, challenges thereto and the way forward. Learn more, visit:

Mr. Baskut Tuncak (Turkey) was appointed Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes by the UN Human Rights Council in 2014. Learn more, visit:

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

UN Human Rights, country page – Brazil:

For enquiries and media requests, please contact Melinda Ching Simon (+41 22 917 9113 / mchingsimon[at]

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya[at]

Arsenic and mercury found in river days after Brazil dam burst

Stephen Eisenhammer


27 November 2015

Illegal levels of arsenic and mercury polluted the Rio Doce river in the days after a dam burst at an iron ore mine in early November in Brazil's worst-ever environmental disaster, according to tests by a state water agency.

The Institute for Water Management in Minas Gerais (IGAM), found arsenic levels more than ten times above the legal limit in one place along the Rio Doce after the dam burst on Nov. 5, killing at least 13 people and flooding thick mud across two states. Mercury slightly above the permitted level was also found in one area.

In total, IGAM found unacceptable levels of arsenic on one or more days between Nov. 7 and Nov. 12 at seven places on the Rio Doce, which stretches over 800 km (500 miles) from the mineral-rich state of Minas Gerais to Espirito Santo on the Atlantic coast.

The report, dated Nov. 17 but only released on IGAM's website on Tuesday after pressure from prosecutors, appears to contradict claims by the companies responsible for the mine.

Samarco, the mine operator, and its co-owners, BHP Billiton PLC (BLT.L) and Vale SA (VALE5.SA), have repeatedly said the water and mineral waste unleashed by the dam burst are not toxic.

Samarco said in a statement on Thursday that their own tests showed the mine waste in the dam, known as tailings, did not pose any harm to humans.

On Wednesday, the United Nations human rights agency said "new evidence" showed the mud "contained high levels of toxic heavy metals and other chemicals," without specifying what the chemicals were or where the evidence came from.

Leonardo Castro Maia, a prosecutor in the city of Governador Valadares, which had its water supply cut off by the mud, told Reuters he had been pushing IGAM to publish its findings on its website. After a delay, he said the agency had complied.

"There's been a real lack of communication between the bodies testing the water and the wider population. The distribution of information needs to be improved," Maia said.

Tommasi Laboratorio, a company hired by Espirito Santo's environmental agency to do tests on the water, said it had also found arsenic above legal levels but quantities had fallen in recent days.

"It's arsenic that wasn't there before the dam burst," said lab owner Bruno Tommasi. He said his tests had found no mercury or uranium and also urged caution about how to interpret the arsenic results.

"Different types of arsenic cause varying levels of harm and our tests did not specify what type of arsenic was in the water," he said.

Biologists working along the river and coastline have been shocked by the impact of the burst dam.

The mud has killed thousands of fish, but BHP said they most likely choked to death on the sheer volume of sediment released by the dam, rather than the chemical composition of the sludge.

(Editing by Marguerita Choy)

Toxic elements found in water weeks after Brazil’s mine disaster — Vale

Cecilia Jamasmie

27 November 2015

Toxic materials, such as arsenic, were found in the water of the Rio Doce river days after a dam burst at a mine in Brazil earlier this month, Vania Somavilla, sustainability chief at Vale, said Friday.

Speaking at a news conference in Rio de Janeiro, Somavilla confirmed that the Institute for Water Management in Minas Gerais (IGAM) had found levels of arsenic above legal limits, local mining news outlet EM reports (in Portuguese).

IGAM found levels of arsenic, lead, aluminum, chromium, nickel and cadmium many times higher than the legal maximums at various points along the river. The tests were taken between Nov. 7 and Nov. 12, as the mud from Samarco’s dam crawled downstream, killing at least seven people, with 15 still missing.

The admission comes two days after a United Nations report alleging the presence of “high levels of toxic heavy metals and other toxic chemicals” in the river, and criticizing both the companies and the government for their “defensive” response to the accident.

But just as its joint-venture partner BHP Billiton, which yesterday released a statement reiterating that the tailings that spilled on the Rio Doce River held nothing hazardous to human health, Vale stressed that the vast amount mud unleashed on Nov.5 only contained water, soil, iron-oxide and sand, none of which are harmful.

Damage control

Biologists working along the river and coastline have been shocked by the impact of the dam burst. The mud, which has already reached the Atlantic Ocean, has killed thousands of fish and other animals in the area, but the companies have said they most likely choked to death under the immense volume of sediment released by the dam, rather than the chemical composition of the sludge.

Last week Samarco, owned by Vale and BHP, was fined 250 million reais ($65.5 million) and forced to pay for accommodations for the dispossessed.


BHP questions UN probe that said Samarco spill ‘toxic’

Cecilia Jamasmie

26 November 2015

Mining giant BHP Billiton is questioning a United Nations’ report released overnight that says the mud and tailings spilled after the Brazilian mine disaster early this month are highly toxic.

The UN’s human rights agency also said that BHP and Vale (NYSE:VALE) did not take the necessary measures to prevent the harm caused so far by toxic heavy metals and other chemicals present in the mine waste.

The agency said to have “new evidence” showing that the 50 million metric tons of iron ore waste released from the Nov. 5 Samarco’s dam rupture contained high levels of toxic elements, but failed to name what studies were the basis for such evidence or who had conducted them.

“The scale of the environmental damage is the equivalent of 20,000 Olympic swimming pools of toxic mud waste contaminating the soil, rivers and water system of an area covering over 850 kilometers,” said UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, John Knox, in the statement.

However, both mining companies have stated that the mud, which has already reached the Atlantic Ocean, is not dangerous.

Clay and silt

On Thursday, BHP released a statement outlining the components of the tailings that spilled on the Rio Doce River. According to the company, the tests conducted show they were comprised of clay and silt material from the washing and processing of earth containing iron ore.

“Based on available data, the tailings are chemically stable,” the company said.

“They will not change chemical composition in water and will behave in the environment like normal soils in the catchment,” it added.

Samarco issued a separate statement (in Portuguese) indicating that further tests carried out by SGS GEOSOL Laboratórios after the incident confirm the waste is not hazardous to human health.

BHP's shares took another hit Thursday, losing 3.7% in Sydney to close below the critical $20 level at A$18.94, a fresh seven-year low.

Brazil's mining tragedy: was it a preventable disaster?

As the ‘sea of mud’ continues its path of destruction, allegations have surfaced that the dam collapse was a result of government and industry negligence


25 November 2015

The recent collapse of a mining dam in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais is one of the biggest environmental disasters in the country’s history. Apocalyptic images of communities swallowed by mud and a river flooded by mining waste have shocked a population that has become hardened to tragedy.

Between 40-62m cubic metres of the water and sediment from iron ore extraction sluiced down a mountainside more than two weeks ago when the Fundão tailings dam failed at an open-cast mine operated by Samarco, a joint venture between mining giants BHP Billiton and Vale.

Concern that two further dams may yet collapse – one of which ruptured during the accident – suggests the unfolding tragedy may yet worsen.

What caused the dam to burst remains unclear but there are suggestions this was an avoidable catastrophe, the result of lax safety regulation in the Brazilian mining industry. Prosecutors have already alleged negligence. Carlos Pinto, who leads a team of environmental prosecutors for the state of Minas Gerais which is investigating the tragedy, said: “Negligence means the absence of the due care in the operation or monitoring of the dam”.

An environmental report produced by the environmental institute Instituto Prístino and commissioned in advance of the state’s 2013 decision to allow Samarco to increase the dam’s height raised concerns over its safety and recommended monitoring, a contingency plan and a “dam break analysis”.

Samarco said its three dams in the complex – including the one that burst – had their appropriate licences. According to the company, the institute’s recommendations were being taken on board.

BHP Billiton has agreed an external investigation with Vale and is reviewing all its tailings dams. Vale, which has now revealed it had been storing waste from a nearby dam in the Fundão dam (amounting to less than 5% of the total, it says), has checked all its tailings dams.

The human and environmental cost

Twelve people are dead and 11 still missing (including eight Samarco workers) in the “sea of mud” which oozed into one of Brazil’s most important rivers, the Rio Doce, killing fish and aquatic life hundreds of kilometres away and making the water hundreds of thousands of people depend on undrinkable.

More than 500 people remain homeless, housed in hotels or with relatives. The community of Bento Rodrigues, closest to the mine, may never be habitable again.

“My house does not exist any more,” said Angelica Peixoto, 50, a teacher from the small community of Paracatu which was also destroyed. Her family of five lost everything.

The disaster left Governador Valadares, a city of 278,000 downstream from the mine site that depends on the Rio Doce for its water, without supplies for a week. “There are a lot of rumours that the water is contaminated,” Érico Netto, a 41-year-old doctor in the city, told the Guardian. “I’m drinking mineral water for now.”

Indigenous people from the Krenak tribe living beside the river blocked a railway line run by Vale in protest at the destruction caused. The line has since been freed. Meanwhile the sea of mud has reached the sea.

A chaotic response

The mining companies involved, as well as Brazil’s politicians, initially struggled to stay on top of the fast-moving situation and the public has condemned the disaster and its handling. Last week, 300 activists stained the front of Vale’s Rio headquarters with mud.

Vale was slammed for initially reacting with a short press release the day after the tragedy. CEOs of Vale and BHP Billiton visited the site six days after the collapse and promised full support and resources.

On the night of the tragedy, Samarco’s CEO Ricardo Vescovi released a video on Facebook saying: “We are very dismayed by what happened but we are absolutely mobilised to contain the damages caused by this tragic accident”. Samarco said it has 600 people working along the affected area, liaising with victims, helping those made homeless and supplying drinking water.

Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, herself heavily criticised for waiting a week to visit the disaster area, has announced an initial 250m reals (£43.5m) in fines for Samarco, one of Brazil’s biggest mining companies.

Samarco has also been suspended from operating in the state of Minas Gerais and had 30m reals (£5.2m) of its funds blocked by a judge in Mariana to repair damage caused in the area. It agreed an initial 1bn reals (£174m) in compensation and preventative measures with prosecutors. But Pinto said costs will be much higher.

“You can’t measure the values yet, the dimension, the proportion of this damage,” he said. “It is still very premature to appoint a specific cause but we have ruled out mischance or a mere accident.”

In a sombre teleconference with analysts on Monday, Vale said it was focused on its efforts to help with damage and human impact, which include delivering millions of litres of water to those affected. The company said the civil damages will be more than Samarco’s insurance cover.

Was this a preventable tragedy?

Perhaps the biggest doubts hang over the causes of the tragedy, which are still being investigated. The dam that burst and the dam that ruptured were earthwork structures holding a mix of water and extraction waste.

Many modern mines use safety techniques such as radar and laser monitoring which should have warned of any structural problems, said John Tumazos, an independent mining analyst and consultant in New Jersey.

Samarco said that it monitored with drones, piezometers, water level gauges, surface marks, bi-weekly and daily checks. “None of the above controls indicated anomalies in the dams,” a spokesperson for the company said.

Fingers are also being pointed at government. The state of Minas Gerais has suffered five dam breaks in the last decade. “We have to revise our safety criteria,” said the environment agency’s Ramos.

Officials in Minas Gerais rated the Fundão dam as Class III - its highest level for potential to cause environmental damage. In addition to the independent report produced by Instituto Prístino, Samarco provided its own independent report in July 2015. Produced by a company called VOGBR, it judged the dam as safe. A spokeswoman for the state Secretariat of the Environment said Secretariat inspectors visited the dam in October 2014 and considered it to be safe, but they are not engineers, she said.

The National Department of Mineral Production, the federal body responsible for checking the safety of tailings dams, did not visit the dam because it was considered low risk, one of its inspectors told the G1 news site.

Pinto said this self-monitoring system does not work. “It is not possible for a dam to be that safe and a few months later have a disaster of this magnitude,” he said.

Minas Gerais has created a task force to study alternatives for storing mining waste. Brazil’s Senate has decided to create a temporary commission to review dam safety legislation - a new mining code has been stuck in Congress for years.

Angelica Peixoto and her husband knew there was a reservoir in the hills above the village where they built their house, but had no idea of its size, or potential danger. “If we had known this we wouldn’t have put the house there,” she said.

BHP hits fresh 7-year low as mud from Brazil disaster reaches Atlantic Ocean

Cecilia Jamasmie -

24 November 2015

BHP Billiton took another hit Tuesday, losing 1.8% in Sydney to close below the critical $20 level at $19.71, a seven-year low, as news of the toxic mud from the collapsed mine in Brazil reaching the Atlantic Ocean emerged.

As shown in several news outlets, the mix of reddish mud, water and debris from the Nov. 5 burst at the Samarco mine in the Minas Gerais, which BHP co-owns with Vale (NYSE:VALE), has travelled at least 600 kilometres from the site of the disaster in the mountains of Brazil, right into the ocean.

BHP hits fresh 7-year low as mud from Brazil disaster reaches Atlantic OceanBHP hits fresh 7-year low as mud from Brazil disaster reaches Atlantic OceanThe mine spill, which killed at least 12 people and left 280,000 without drinking water, destroyed a nearby village and contaminated the Doce river basin, smothering thousands of fish, turtles and other animals.

Brazil's environment minister, Izabella Teixeira, has already called it “the worst environmental disaster in the country's history,” adding it would take at least 30 years to clean up the area.

BHP hits fresh 7-year low as mud from Brazil disaster reaches Atlantic OceanBiologist, Marcos Vago, recently told G1, an affiliate of Brazil's Globo media group (in Portuguese), that mineral toxins were likely to accumulate in fish stocks, causing supply and health problems.

The news came as the price of iron ore continues its month-long retreat, diving to a fresh 10-year low Tuesday to $43.69, according to The Metal Bulletin index.

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