MAC: Mines and Communities

Back to tragedy: more news of the BHP Billiton/Vale tailings dam collapse in Brazil

Published by MAC on 2016-10-22
Source: Greenpeace Brazil, Reuters

Back to tragedy: more news of the BHP Billiton/Vale tailings dam collapse in Brazil

Fabiana Alves, Greenpeace Brazil, translated by Paul Robson

28 July 2016

In the month of June, we returned to the banks of the Rio Doce to update ourselves on the situation in the region and present to local people and institutions the research studies that will be carried out in the next six months about the fauna, flora and water of the region, and about the impact on the people affected.

We landed in Belo Horizonte (MG) and then proceeded to drive to Mariana to start meetings with those affected by the bursting of the Fundão dam, owned by Samarco, a company formed by Brazil’s Vale and Anglo-Australian BHP Billiton.

The city is still beautiful and welcoming but, when talking to people, the impact that the destruction of Bento Rodrigues sub-district had in Mariana is clear. Dependent on mineral production for people’s livelihoods, the city is being affected economically and a despair for a quick solution begins to bubble up.

Bento Rodrigues cannot be accessed without being accompanied by the civil defence group of Mariana, who warn us of the risk of collapse of the Germano dam – showing that little has been specifically resolved on site in terms of security. A second collapse would affect even more a river already taken over by mining waste.

More than 260 families are still without a defined place to rebuild their home. These people receive a minimum wage and a basic basket of goods from Samarco, which continues with a cheap and easy welfare strategy to resolve the situation since paying the minimum is easier than creating a structure that provides the conditions for workers to return to their original livelihoods and recover their physical losses. Some residents of Mariana put the blame on the affected populations for the economic situation, which fell apart with the freezing of Samarco’s activities, a clear reversal in perspective between the guilty and those directly affected.

In other municipalities along the Rio Doce, the fear continues of potential water contamination. In Governador Valadares (MG), where there is no other source of water abstraction than the Rio Doce, those who have the money buy mineral water, and no one consumes fish. The same is repeated in other cities, which also fear contamination of food irrigated with river water. Linhares, Espírito Santo, which suffers from drought and is not able to inaugurate the new water system from the Rio Doce, is draining the water of its famous lakes – now isolated so that they do not suffer contamination.

The Krenak know much about the ways in which Vale negotiates, as the company has a railway line passing through the middle of their demarcated indigenous land. Their village receives drinking water from Vale because it refuses to use water from the Rio Doce. The only existing water abstraction alternative is the Rio Eme, which is dry due to drought and deforestation. Drought worsens the situation of Krenak, who are small farmers and ranchers who depend on irrigation for cultivation. The size of the damage caused by Samarco, Vale and BHP are still immeasurable.

With respect to governments, the only existing common policy is the inter-federative agreement between the state government, federal government and Samarco, signed on March 2, that did not listen to the people and municipalities affected by the mud-spill, and left the solution totally in the hands of the company. The “judgment” as it is called, is being questioned by federal prosecutors and institutions, including Greenpeace, which issued a letter of rejection of the settlement.

We finished our journey in Vitória, Espírito Santo, where fishing at the mouth of the river is prohibited since February in response to the recommendation of the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity (ICMBio). While the degree of contamination of the water is still under investigation there is no fishing. And even if fishing were allowed the population would not consume it, according to the fishermen.

Meanwhile, discussions like the Proposed Constitutional Amendment (PEC) 65 are raised in Congress in order to weaken environmental licensing for major projects with environmental and social impacts. It is also worth remembering the new Mining Code, which seeks to reduce bureaucracy and overrides conservation units, indigenous lands and Quilombo. All this is in the name of progress and development.

The studies selected through the public tender of the River of People, in partnership with Greenpeace, were well received by everyone in the region and arrive at a good time since each piece of research could provide a possibility for a solution for inhabitants and affected people. The Samarco dam burst is already one of the biggest disasters of the century, and should serve to remind leaders that an environmental impact will always also be a social and economic impact.

* Fabiana Alves is from the Climate and Energy Campaign of Greenpeace Brazil

Brazil state could ban dam design used at Samarco mine

By Marta Nogueira


20 July 2016
RIO DE JANEIRO - A Brazilian state law to ban upstream tailings dams, the design used at a dam that collapsed at the Samarco iron ore mine in November, could be approved this year, an environmental official for the state of Minas Gerais told Reuters on Wednesday.

Anderson Silva de Aguilar, the subsecretary for environmental regulation, also said Samarco, which is co-owned by Vale SA and BHP Billiton, would not be resuming operations this year and may not in 2017 either.

In an emailed comment, Samarco said it was following all licensing procedures and had delivered the documents necessary for agencies to allow it to resume partial operations.

Support for a ban of upstream tailings dams from Silva de Aguilar, who has been in the job for less than two months, represents a major policy change for his department that could increase the cost of new projects in Brazil's mining heartland.

As recently as May, his predecessor, Geraldo Abreu, said an outright ban was not on the cards in a Reuters report which showed that engineers, prosecutors and tailings dam experts were increasingly arguing for a ban.

"It was a devastating disaster... it is a stain on the industry," Silva de Aguilar said by phone. "There is now great impetus for us to introduce more rigorous norms and criteria."

A dam design used to store mining waste, known as tailings, upstream 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.

Chile, where earthquakes have caused deadly spills in the past, is currently the only major mining nation to ban upstream dams.

The dam burst at the Samarco mine killed 19 people, left hundreds homeless and polluted a major river. Brazil's government called it the country's worst-ever environmental disaster.

Vale, Brazil's largest miner and the world's biggest producer of iron ore, has already warned that stricter licensing laws could force it to cut output by as much as 100 million tonnes.

Silva de Aguilar said he aims not to curtail Minas Gerais' mining industry, crucial to the state's economy.

"The state can't afford to lose mining activity now, our gross domestic product depends on it, but the standards will be much higher," he said.

 (writing by Stephen Eisenhammer; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Alan Crosby)

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