A tidal wave of mud: The Brumadinho disaster in BrazilPublished by MAC on 2019-02-10
Source: New York Times, Reuters, Economist, statements (2019-02-10)
On 25th January 2019 there was a catastrophic tailings dam burst at Brumadinho in Brazil, at an iron ore mine run by Brazilian multinational Vale. Although the environmental damage done seems to be much less than when the Fundao tailings dam burst in November 2015 at the Samarco iron ore mine (owned by Vale and London-listed BHP - see: http://www.minesandcommunities.org/article.php?a=13156), the number of people killed is many times more than in the 2015 disaster.
The area is still being searched but it looks as though the final death toll will be in the hundreds - many of them the company's own workers. Government and companies seem to have ignored recommendations made in the light of earlier disasters.
News sites with collected coverage include:-
A Tidal Wave of Mud
9 February 2019
A mining dam collapsed and buried more than 150 people. Now Brazil is casting an anxious eye on dozens of dams like it.
BRUMADINHO, Brazil — Luiz de Castro was installing lamps at a mining complex in Brazil late last month when a loud blast split the air. He figured it was just a truck tire popping, but a friend knew better.
“No, it’s not that!” the friend said. “Run!”
Dashing up a staircase, caked in mud and pelted by flying rocks, Mr. Castro clambered to safety. But as he watched, a wall of mud unleashed by the collapse of a mining dam swallowed his co-workers, he said. Tiago, George, Icaro — they and at least 154 others, all buried alive.
The deluge of toxic mud stretched for five miles, crushing homes, offices and people — a tragedy, but hardly a surprise, experts say.
This article is by Shasta Darlington, James Glanz, Manuela Andreoni, Matthew Bloch, Sergio Peçanha, Anjali Singhvi and Troy Griggs.
There are 87 mining dams in Brazil built like the one that failed — enormous reservoirs of mining waste held back by little more than walls of sand and silt. And all but four of the dams have been rated by the government as equally vulnerable, or worse.
Even more alarming, at least 27 sit directly uphill from cities or towns, with more than 100,000 people living in especially risky areas if the dams failed, an estimate by The New York Times found.
In the disaster last month, all the elements for catastrophe were there: A bare-bones reservoir of mining waste built on the cheap, sitting above a large town nestled underneath. Overlooked warnings of structural problems that could lead to a collapse. Monitoring equipment that had stopped working.
And perhaps above all, a country where a powerful mining industry has been free to act more or less unchecked.
The threat of poorly constructed mining dams in Brazil goes far beyond one company. The latest deadly failure — the second in Brazil in three years — has made it clear that neither the mining industry nor regulators have the situation under control.
Vale S.A., the world’s largest iron ore producer, says it will close all 10 of its dams in Brazil with a design similar to the one it ran in the town, Brumadinho. Still, the company, which bought the mining complex in 2001, defended its management of the dam, which had been sitting there, inactive, since 2016.
“The dam had a safety factor in accordance with the world’s best practices,” Vale said in a statement. The structure, it said, had been inspected regularly, and the reports “attest to the physical and hydraulic safety of the dam.”
But questions about the safety of the dam had been brushed aside for years. Despite them, the company had managed to get its plan to expand the mining complex in Brumadinho fast-tracked for approval by local officials.
“When you have this sort of structure upstream of a population center, that sends up all sorts of red flags,” said William F. Marcuson III, a former president of the American Society of Civil Engineers.
It is one of the oddest structures known to engineering — and, unless it is designed, constructed and monitored with great attention to detail, one of the most terrifying.
Like any dam, they can fail in a number of unsurprising ways. They can overtop if filled too quickly. They can spring a leak, or sustain damage in an earthquake. Or they can fall victim to sloppy construction or maintenance.
But they are not like any dam.
Indeed, the structure at Brumadinho strained the very definition of “dam.” It had no separate concrete or metal wall to hold back its contents. Instead, the structure, known as an upstream tailings dam, relied on the lake of mud to remain solid enough to contain itself.
“Basically they are like landfills, but wet landfills,” said Gregory B. Baecher, a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a professor at the University of Maryland.
The dams’ unique construction makes them vulnerable to a bizarre and potentially devastating process called liquefaction. When that happens, a solid material seemingly resting safely in place can abruptly become a murky liquid, flowing downhill and destroying nearly everything in its path.
Even a subtle change, like an increase in water content because of especially heavy rains, say, or poor management, can create enough internal pressure to push apart the solid tailings and liquefy the mud.
The people of Brumadinho know all too well what can happen next.
“The forces are absolutely phenomenal,” said Dirk Van Zyl, a professor of mining engineering at the University of British Columbia, who investigated a 2014 collapse of a tailings dam in Canada. “You really have to see it to understand.”
A video of the Brumadinho collapse makes clear that the mud behind the dam did liquefy, experts who have seen it said. What is not clear is whether liquefaction caused the collapse, or followed it.
“It started as a pinpoint,” said Mr. Marcuson, the former engineering society president, “and maybe in one second it looked like a whole patch down there.” Very rapidly, he said, “the dam fails and the tailings pour out and the dam goes to hell in a matter of seconds. And the dam just crumbles up.”
Mr. Van Zyl said: “Ultimately everything liquefies and it’s gone. It’s pretty darn bad.”
Many engineers cautioned that it was too soon to draw firm conclusions about what precisely went wrong with the structure in Brumadinho, called Dam I of the Córrego do Feijão Mine. And they said it was possible to build upstream tailings dams safely.
“There’s nothing blatantly wrong with this method of construction,” said W. Allen Marr, founder and chief executive of Geocomp, based in Boston, and a member of the national academy. When the structures fail, Mr. Marr said, “it’s usually a combination of several things that should have been done but don’t get done.”
In 2010, Washington Pirete, whose LinkedIn profile and a professional publication list him as a longtime Vale employee, wrote a master’s thesis focused on the dam at Brumadinho. Mr. Pirete concluded that the risks of liquefaction were low to moderate, but several engineers say now that his analysis, if anything, cast doubt on the safety of the dam.
Mr. Marr said that Mr. Pirete’s safety calculations “raise questions about the stability of the dam.” Mr. Van Zyl said that if he had calculated the safety margins Mr. Pirete found for the dam, “I wouldn’t sleep well.” He said his first reaction on seeing the thin margins was that the dam “should have failed earlier, almost.”
Mr. Pirete did not respond to several requests for comment.
The thesis describes a method of construction, which began in 1976, that is in many ways routine for upstream dams.
A so-called starter dike was built across the valley above Brumadinho, and the mining company piped waste behind it. When the waste neared the top of the dike, the company built another slightly uphill — hence the name upstream construction. The second dike sat directly on the hardened mud.
Over the decades, a towering structure rose over the mining complex, its integrity dependent entirely on the solidity of the mud.
A closer look at Mr. Pirete’s figures, some of which were scarcely above the collapse threshold, left some engineers questioning how Mr. Pirete could have considered the dam safe.
“That’s way too close to the margin,” Mr. Baecher said.
Last year, a German company hired by Vale took its own look at the dam and calculated higher stability factors than Mr. Pirete did — but it did raise safety concerns.
The company Tüv Süd found blocked drainage pipes and cracks, and made note of a small wooden structure that had been erected to stop part of the dam from slumping. The company also found water visibly seeping from at least one area, and said there was a risk of liquefaction.
To reduce the risk of triggering a collapse through vibrations, they advised Vale to avoid letting heavy equipment onto the dam or allowing detonations nearby. They also advised work to keep the water level from rising.
A Looming Threat
Two weeks after the Brumadinho tragedy, sirens went off in the middle of the night 76 miles away, in the town of Barão de Cocais. “Attention! This is a real dam break emergency,” loudspeakers blasted. “Abandon your homes immediately.”
The alarms wreaked havoc as nearly 500 people were ordered to evacuate. Vale, which owns the mining complex in Barão de Cocais, called it a “preventive measure,” explaining it had initiated its emergency plan after the consulting firm Walm refused to attest to the dam’s stability.
“We hope it doesn’t burst, but unlike many cities we had time to act,” said Décio dos Santos, the town mayor. “We didn’t know the dam was dangerous.”
The true risk of dams in Brazil — and elsewhere — is largely unknown.
Just as in Brumadinho, the dams above the now evacuated areas of Barão de Cocais and another town, Itatiaiuçu, are upstream dams. There are a total of 87 upstream dams throughout Brazil, and all but four have the same safety rating as the collapsed structure — or worse — according to government records.
Some of these poorly rated dams lie directly upstream from populated areas, an analysis by The Times found. At least 27 sit directly uphill from cities or towns, and could threaten them if they failed.
In Itatiaiuçu, just 20 miles west of Brumadinho, residents were also awoken in the pre-dawn hours on Friday. Authorities and representatives of the ArcelorMittal mining company went door to door in one neighborhood, ordering some 200 people to evacuate.
Here, too, the company said it had initiated its emergency plan after auditors adopted “a more conservative methodology” and refused to attest to the stability of a nearby dam — although the conditions themselves were unchanged.
A Company Town Says ‘Enough’
When the dam collapsed at the Córrego de Feijão mine shortly after noon, 11.7 million cubic meters of mining waste — enough to fill almost 5,000 Olympic swimming pools — descended toward the town below. As it did, it slammed into a company cafeteria, where there were a couple of hundred employees.
It took rescue workers days to reach them.
Vale is the main source of income for the 37,000 people living in Brumadinho, but as the death toll rose, public anger boiled over at the company.
Even run-of-the-mill activities became daunting, with a mass of thick brown sludge now cutting through the town.
Two days after the dam collapse, Mayor Avimar Barcelos described Vale as “incompetent and reckless.” Vale workers, once proud, felt subdued. One said he no longer felt comfortable wearing his uniform on the street.
“I’d be lynched,” he said.
The company says it is still investigating what caused the rupture and insists there were no warning signs.
The dam had been inactive for almost three years, according to Vale, and had been certified as stable in September, despite warnings in a 2015 environmental impact study that some of the monitoring instruments were faulty.
Three years ago, a similar dam burst in the city of Mariana, 75 miles away, killing 19 people and unleashing one of the worst environmental disasters in Brazilian history. That dam was jointly owned by Vale and the Anglo-Australian mining company BHP.
After the Mariana collapse, officials vowed to adopt rigorous safety protocols. That never happened.
In Brazil, given the dearth of government inspectors, companies are allowed to self-regulate, hiring independent auditors to verify dam safety through regular inspections and an analysis of written records — all provided by the company.
Experts say that creates a conflict of interest.
“You can’t have the person doing the inspection getting paid by the company he is inspecting,” said Evandro Moraes da Gama, a professor of engineering at the Federal University of Minas Gerais who specializes in mining waste.
Four days after the Brumadinho dam burst, the police arrested the outside inspectors who had attested to its stability, along with three Vale employees responsible for safety and environmental licensing. A judge later ordered them released.
“They’re taking it out on the inspectors, arresting them, but it’s the system that’s flawed,” Mr. Gama said.
Many residents of Brumadinho believe that the failure of the company’s warning system cost many lives. In a statement, Vale said the “speed at which the event occurred made it impossible to trigger the sirens.”
Mr. Castro, the Vale employee who escaped the deluge, said, “If the alarm had sounded, the environmental tragedy would still happen, but no one would have died.”
Jefferson Ferreira dos Passos, whose sister worked at an inn downhill from the dam, said that when he heard it had burst, he immediately called her. When she didn’t answer, Mr. Passos ran four miles to the site — only to find an expanse of mud.
He and another man started carrying survivors out of the sludge. When they found a woman clinging to a tree trunk with her legs broken, they waited by her side until a helicopter airlifted her out.
He never found his sister.
Hooked on Mining
The first Portuguese explorers came searching for gold and diamonds in the state of Minas Gerais, whose name means “general mines.” It remains the hub of Brazil’s mining industry, producing 53 percent of the country’s output, with more mines and tailings dams than any other Brazilian state. Here, critics say, the laws are written by the mining companies, not for them.
Last December, an extraordinary meeting of the state council on mining regulations was called to vote on a proposal by Vale to expand operations at Córrego de Feijão and another mine. The proposal had been declared a “priority” by the state.
Maria Teresa Corujo, an activist who represents the community vote on the council, angrily pointed out that council members had been given just four business days to pore over thousands of documents.
“The environmental management of our state continues to be focused on the G.D.P. index, on mining interests,” she said, according to minutes of the meeting that were sent to The Times. “This is destroying Minas Gerais.”
Júlio Cesar Dutra Grillo, the state representative from the federal environmental protection agency, warned the council that the dams were not risk free. “Any negligence on the part of those conducting risk management, and they rupture,” he said.
The proposal passed with one dissenting vote, from Ms. Corujo, and an abstention by Mr. Grillo.
The board's decision came despite growing concern about accidents after the Mariana dam collapse. In public hearings, activists in Brumadinho would try to convince residents that tourism, not mining, was the city’s path forward.
But tourism is not what keeps the city spinning. Mining started here in the 1950s and many communities in the city were created by its workers.
Fernando Coelho, 35, was born in a small community inside the Córrego do Feijão mining compound. “My umbilical cord is buried there,” he said.
Mr. Coelho started working there alongside his father, Olavo Coelho, when he was 19, but was at home after a night shift on the day the dam broke. He knew his father would be having lunch at the cafeteria and rushed to his car. When he got there, all he found was mud.
Mr. Coelho said he was desperately sad — but angry, too. Months before the collapse, his father had been called in to fix a leak. Ever since then, according to his son, he had been saying the dam was not safe.
“He warned the dam could burst,” he said. “But he isn’t the one making decisions.”
Mr. Coelho said he told the prosecutors in charge of the investigation what his father had told him. Three other workers also told The Times they were aware of leaks.
But Mr. Coelho said that despite his father’s warnings, he had never worried the dam would break. His whole life, after all, revolved around the mining complex. He feels differently now.
“I won’t ever go back,” he said. “It killed my father.”
In the days after the rupture, Vale said it would give the families of each victim 100,000 reais, or $27,000, independent of any legal settlements.
State and national governments quickly called for stricter regulations, but, as experts point out, the outrage after the Mariana dam collapse did little to improve the regulatory framework.
“After Mariana, the system just got more flexible, facilitating the traffic of influence inside the licensing system,” said Klemens Laschefski, a Federal University of Minas Gerais professor who participates in the council meetings.
“I’ve been to 40 meetings on priority projects — not one was rejected,” he said.
Ademir Caricati, a community leader in a neighborhood where roughly 40 houses were destroyed, said that Vale officials told residents last year that the dam posed little danger.
The officials even offered an odd sort of reassurance, pointing out that the mine’s administrative offices were right below the dam.
“We would be the first to die,” one said.
Shasta Darlington and Manuela Andreoni reported from Brumadinho, and James Glanz, Matthew Bloch, Sergio Peçanha, Anjali Singhvi and Troy Griggs from New York. Scott Reinhard, Meghan Petersen and K.K. Rebecca Lai contributed additional work.
Correction: Feb. 12, 2019
An earlier version of this article misstated the number of mining dams in Brazil built like the structure that collapsed in Brumadinho. There are 87 — not 88 — mining dams in the country that are similar to the Brumadinho dam, and 27 — not 28 — are estimated to sit above cities or towns.
Why Did the Dam in Brazil Collapse? Here’s a Brief Look.
That the dam fell was a tragedy. It should not have been a surprise.
The New York Times
9 February 2019
On Jan. 25, a mining dam that sat above Brumadinho, a large town in southeastern Brazil, collapsed and unleashed a tidal wave of waste and mud that engulfed homes, businesses and residents in its path. It killed at least 157 people; 182 are still missing.
It was one of the deadliest mining accidents in Brazilian history — a tragedy, but not a surprise, experts told The Times in an investigation into the dam’s collapse. All the elements of a potential catastrophe had been present, and warning signs overlooked, for years.
Why did the dam burst?
The structure, owned by the giant Brazilian mining company Vale S.A., strained the very definition of “dam” — it was an enormous, bare-bones reservoir of mining waste held back by little more than walls of sand and silt. It had no separate concrete or metal to hold back its contents. Instead, the dam relied on the lake of mud to remain solid enough to contain itself.
Are there other dams like it?
There are 87 mining dams in Brazil built like the one that failed. And all but four of them have been rated by the government as equally vulnerable, or worse. Even more alarming, at least 27 similarly built dams sit directly uphill from cities or towns, with more than 100,000 people living in especially risky areas if they failed, an estimate by The New York Times found.
The dam relied on mud to hold it up?
This type of construction — known as an upstream tailings dam — is one of the oddest structures known to engineering. And unless it is designed, constructed and monitored with great attention to detail, it can also be one of the most terrifying.
Dams like the one that failed are, in essence, lakes of thick, semi-hardened mud, consisting of water and the solid byproducts of ore mining, which are known as tailings.
Their unique construction makes them vulnerable to a potentially devastating process called liquefaction, when seemingly solid material can abruptly become a murky liquid, flowing downhill.
Even a subtle change like an increase in water content — because of especially heavy rains or poor management — can liquefy the mud.
What do we know about the company, Vale S.A.?
It is the world’s largest iron ore miner, founded in 1942.
Just this week it evacuated hundreds of people from the area of another dam because of safety concerns. Three years ago, another dam burst in the city of Mariana, just 75 miles away, killing 19 people and causing an environmental catastrophe. That dam was jointly owned by Vale and an Anglo-Australian mining company BHP. After the Mariana collapse, officials vowed to adopt rigorous safety protocols. That never happened.
What have the Vale and the government’s responses been?
Brazil’s top prosecutor said Vale should be punished. The Brazilian government said it was ordering inspections at dams around the country.
Four days after the Brumadinho dam burst, the police arrested the outside inspectors who had attested to its stability, along with three Vale employees responsible for safety and environmental licensing. A judge later ordered them released.
The threat of poorly constructed dams in Brazil, especially those near towns and cities, goes far beyond one company. And the latest tragedy has made it clear that neither the mining industry nor regulators have the situation under control.
The state of Minas Gerais, where the dam that collapsed was located, is the hub of Brazil’s mining industry, producing 53 percent of the country’s total output. It has more mines and tailings dams than any other state in the country. But, critics say, the laws governing them are written by the mining companies, not for the safety of residents.
Vale says alarms didn’t go off on time in Brumadinho due to 'speed' of sludge
1 February 2019
Residents of Brumadinho, Brazil, where a mining dam ruptured last week leaving at least 110 dead, 238 missing and an environmental disaster of epic proportions, claim a law-enforced alarm didn’t go off on time to save lives, local media report.
According to O Globo, one of the most respected Brazilian publications, mining giant Vale acknowledged that warning sirens at its Córrego do Feijão mine were not immediately triggered, but noted that that was normal, given “the speed at which the event unfolded."
The sirens that would have alerted workers if the dam burst, were destroyed by the mud flow before anyone could sound the alarm, the company said.
"The sirens that would have alerted workers if the dam burst, were destroyed by the mud flow before anyone could sound the alarm, Vale said."
Earlier this week, BBC News Brazil asked Vale whether alarms should work regardless of the speed of a dam's rupture. Correspondent Amanda Rossi also requested details on how the warning system worked, including whether it was a manual or automatic mechanism. But instead of addressing those questions, the iron ore producer put up a public statement clarifying that all its dams have a law-enforced Emergency Action Plan for Mining Dams (PAEBM).
“This plan is based on technical studies of hypothetical situations in case of dam breach. The PAEBM foresees what will be the flooding area and also the self-saving zone,” the company stated, adding that the Córrego do Feijão’s storage facility had “all applicable stability statements and was constantly audited by external and independent companies."
“Dam 1 had a video monitoring system, an emergency warning system with sirens and the registration of all downstream population,” Vale said.
It also noted the dam was subject to biweekly inspections, which were reported to Brazil's National Mining Agency. The last one, it said, was carried out January 22nd, just three days before the dam rupture.
A joint report in November 2017 by the United Nations Environment Program and the Norwegian foundation GRID-Arendal found that in most failures, there had been ample advance warning signs. “The tragedy is that the warning signs were either ignored or not recognized by under-resourced management,” the report said.
"Risk was known" — report
According to an internal Vale study published Friday by Brazilian paper Folha de S.Paulo, the company knew as recently as last year that some of the areas affected by last week’s tragedy were at risk if its tailings dam burst.
The document, dated April 18, 2018, outlined the likely impact of a collapse at the dam, specifically mentioning the cafeteria where many Vale workers are likely to have died when the dam collapsed.
And while Vale faces crippling fines, class action lawsuits and the scrutiny of Brazil’s powerful state prosecutors, shares in the company are recovering slowly — from $11.2 at the opening on Monday, climbing to $12.51 by noon Friday.
Additionally, the city of Mangaratiba, in Rio de Janeiro, has reopened Vale's Ilha Guaíba (TIG) iron ore terminal after all environmental licences held by the company were shown to to be valid, Agencia Brasil reported.
Latest mining waste dam failure was preventable, foreseen
Expert recommendations & research ignored by global mining industry
Statement of Earthworks' Mining Director Payal Sampat
25 January 2019
"Vale’s Brumadinho mining waste dam failure is all the more tragic because the mining industry knows how to prevent them, yet failed to act.
200 people are missing and some presumed dead because Vale and the rest of global mining industry haven’t adopted the Mount Polley Independent Expert Panel’s recommendations made in response to a similar catastrophic mining waste dam failure in 2014. These recommendations have been globally recognized, including by the United Nations Environment Programme’s 2017 assessment of tailings dams failures, and by the multi-sector Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance standard. Until these recommendations are adopted and independently verified, preventable mining disasters will continue to occur wherever the mining industry operates.
Independent research that analyzes mine waste dam failures since the turn of the 20th century reveals that these catastrophic failures are occurring more frequently. It also projects the trend will continue, driven by economic factors.
After the 2015 Samarco mining waste dam disaster, the International Council on Mining Metals published mining waste impoundment guidance that ignored the globally recognized recommendations by the Mount Polley Panel." -- Earthworks Mining Director Payal Sampat
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Mount Polley Independent Expert Panel’s recommendations
United Nations Environment Programme’s 2017 assessment of tailings dams failures
Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance’s Standard
World Mine Tailings Dam Failures
ICMM mine waste impoundment guidance
Earthworks: Two Years Later, A Look at Mount Polley (from 2016)
Alan Septoff, (202) 271-2355, email@example.com
Justice for the victims of Brumadinho mining dam collapse. Shut down Vale SA!
IPCM and YLNM Joint Statement
1 February 2019
The International People’s Conference on Mining (IPCM) and the Yes to Life, No to Mining Network (YLNM) offer heartfelt sympathies to the victims of the worst environmental disaster in Brazil’s history -- the dam collapse near Brumadinho, in Minas Gerais.
Our global networks extend our commitment and solidarity to the people and people’s organizations in Brazil who are seeking justice for the victims of mining company Vale SA’s environmental crimes, and for the company to be held accountable. Organizations like the International Articulation of People Affected by Vale have been denouncing Vale’s dangerous mining practices to their shareholders for years, but those concerns have fallen on deaf ears.
Vale SA owns the Córrego do Feijão Mine waste dam, which collapsed on January 25th 2019. The company was also responsible for the catastrophic Samarco dam collapse in 2015, which killed at least 19 people. Vale operates in more than 30 countries worldwide and is known for its track record of polluting the environment and violating the rights of communities.
In the aftermath of this environmental crime, we demand the following urgent action from the Brazilian national government and Vale SA:
- Medical attention and hospitalization at no cost to those wounded in the disaster, and health support for those traumatised until they have fully recovered;
- Immediate indemnification and compensation to the victims and their families who have lost their loved ones and their properties damaged by the incident;
- Financial assistance and livelihood support for mine workers who have been displaced and/or made jobless as a result of the collapse;
- Ecological and economic rehabilitation, which should immediately commence after the rescue operation is over. The lives and livelihood of the communities in the areas should be able to return to normal as soon as possible;
- The immediate suspension and thorough independent investigation of all Vale operations in Brazil, by order of the Brazilian Government, to prevent another catastrophic mine disaster.
Vale SA and the Brazilian Government should shoulder the expenses related to the indemnification, compensation, and rehabilitation related to the incident.
Vale SA, its officials and owners, and responsible government officials, must be held accountable for the environmental destruction and death they have caused in Brumadinho. There should be no whitewashing and justice should be served as soon as possible.
The collapse of Dam I at the Córrego do Feijão was a preventable disaster. Despite the demonstrable increase in catastrophic tailings dam collapses around the world and the development of the Mount Polley independent expert panel recommendations - globally recognized by the United Nations Environment Programme’s 2017 assessment of tailings dams failures, and by the multi-sector Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance Standard - the global mining industry has refused to develop or adhere to the meaningful regulations needed to keep local communities, workers and ecosystems safe from disaster. Upstream tailings dams like the ones in Brumadinho continue to be the most commonly used worldwide. These reports tell us that they are also the most dangerous and pose the most risk. This is not just a Vale problem, it is an industry-wide epidemic.
The mining sector as a whole must commit to real changes that will prevent future disasters at existing mines NOW. This means getting behind major overhauls in design at existing mines, independent inspections paid for by mining companies, emergency response and grievance systems.
Mining trade associations like the International Council of Minerals and Metals must stop obstructing the development of strong safety requirements, as they have done in the case of tailings dams, and adopt the best practice guidelines like those set out by the Mount Polley independent expert panel.
Whatever safety precautions are put in place, we recognize that industrial-scale mining is an industry predicated on harm. There is no such thing as sustainable mining, and no company operating today can claim to be ‘responsible’, even according to the limited measures established in initiatives like the Responsible Mining Index.
With this in mind, we stand with communities resisting new and unwanted extractive projects around the world who are asserting their right to say NO to mining, and exploring alternatives to extractivism.
Enough is Enough! The Brumadinho disaster must represent a turning point away from wanton destruction and corporate impunity in the mining industry. We stand together in calling for justice for the victims of Brumadinho mining dam collapse.
Clemente Bautista Jr.
International Committee Member
International People's Conference on Mining
Northern Europe Coordinator
Yes to Life No to Mining Network
A Brazilian tragedy is a Deepwater Horizon moment. Sort of
Into the valley of death
31 January 2019
FROM THE air, the iron-ore mines in Minas Gerais look like roughshod capitalism let loose. Mines are torn out of the landscape, and ramshackle mining towns exist perilously close by. Squeezed within the dense topography are tailings dams, pools of waste material extracted from the mine that sit behind pharaonic embankments reaching dozens of storeys high. On January 25th an 86-metre-tall one owned by Vale, the world’s biggest iron-ore producer, breached, unleashing a wave of sludge that may have killed more than 350 people. They included hundreds of the company’s own employees, many of them having lunch in the cafeteria, recklessly sited below.
Such a death toll would make this one of the worst tailings tragedies in history; worse for instance than Aberfan in Wales in 1966, or Buffalo Creek, West Virginia in 1972. Even more damaging for Vale, this is the second such disaster in which it is implicated in just over three years. For the world’s mining industry, too, it is cause for soul-searching. Similar tailings dams, which exist in their thousands around the world, mock mining’s mantra of “safety first”. At a time when the industry is under increasing pressure to put roughshod capitalism back in its box and respect land, local peoples and the law, this is a problem it cannot ignore.
As hopes of rescue fade, the immediate question for Vale is what went wrong—not once, but twice. In 2015 Samarco, a company jointly owned by Vale and BHP, an Anglo-Australian mining giant, suffered a similar tailings-dam disaster, causing the deaths of 19 people and the worst environmental mishap in Brazilian history. In the aftermath, one of Vale’s proudest boasts was about the safety of its own operations. As recently as September, a German-owned firm inspected the latest doomed mine near Brumadinho and gave it the all-clear. But it is an “upstream” dam, with a structure consisting of tailings on top of tailings, and the most vulnerable of all to failure. Experts say water seepage into the supporting dam face is the most common reason for them to burst. Days after the Brumadinho disaster, Fabio Schvartsman, Vale’s chief executive, ordered the decommissioning of all ten of the firm’s upstream tailings dams, halting production at the mines nearby, which will affect about a tenth of the company’s 390m tonnes of annual iron-ore production.
This leads to a bigger question about Vale’s future. Does the scale of the twin disasters threaten it with the sort of fines, lawsuits and damage to its reputation that BP, a British oil company, incurred after the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010? The total bill for BP came to more than $60bn. There are four reasons to take potential Armageddon seriously. Since the disaster angry Brazilians have noted that, under Mr Schvartsman, Vale offered generous dividends and share buy-backs to investors, helping its share price double since he took over in 2017. They say some of the money should have been spent on safety instead.
If the authorities accept that line of reasoning, they could demand additional safety measures and shutdowns across Minas Gerais, where Vale mines about half of its iron ore. Second, it faces still undetermined damages for the Samarco disaster, which could rise as a result of the latest tragedy. Third, Brazil’s top prosecutor has said she will pursue criminal charges against executives: three Vale employees and two contractors have been arrested. State authorities have quickly levelled fines against the company and frozen selected assets. Damages could soar. Fourth is morale. Vale’s employees will mourn the loss of their colleagues, damaging motivation. Executives will be so worried about yet another accident that they lose their appetite for risk. The more listless the company, the more likely financial performance will suffer.
That said, this is crony-capitalist Brazil, not litigation-mad America. Though politicians argue that disasters in Brazil should be no less costly to big firms than those in the Gulf of Mexico, few would be willing to see Vale suffer the same drawn-out agony as BP. The firm says mining accounts for as much as 5% of Brazil’s GDP. Vale’s big shareholders are some of Brazil’s top pension funds. It could compensate for shutdowns near Brumadinho by shifting production to the Amazon rainforest, where it has a more modern, safer mine. There are plenty of incentives for the new government of Jair Bolsonaro to be lenient, not least its pro-business bent. Initially Vale lost $19bn of its market capitalisation after the disaster, but then pared some losses. Its bond prices, though cheaper, are not indicating severe trouble ahead. Vale will probably soldier on.
In corporate disasters such as this, rivals are usually quick to twist the knife. That happened to BP in 2010. But the industry should look at itself in the mirror. Mining firms claim to be obsessed with safety; in head offices, that can extend to absurdities like obliging visitors to hold on to handrails. Yet their record on tailings dams is abysmal. The more metals they mine, the more “very serious” accidents occur, involving deaths and large quantities of sludge. According to World Mine Tailings Failures (WMTF), a database, 13 have taken place in the decade to 2017, as many as between 1948 and 1977. WMTF experts say tailings dams fail at ten times the rate of reservoirs, mostly because of poor drainage. This indicates that the industry needs to tighten its engineering standards.
The reason firms continue to build upstream dams, such as the one at Brumadinho, is not because they are safe, but because they are cheap; they require the least amount of new material. Yet that is a false economy. Though markets reward mining firms for generating profits, not for spending heavily on safety measures, in the long run the risks are literally piling up. The world needs mining to continue, and these days, with big miners focusing on richer countries with high levels of scrutiny, that means taking corporate governance seriously, not just paying it lip service. To take it seriously means shutting down facilities that are dangerous.
Brazil's Vale knew about sensor problems at dam before burst: Globo TV
6 February 2019
SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Brazilian iron ore miner Vale SA was made aware of problems with sensors designed to monitor the structure of a dam that ended up bursting, killing an estimated 300 people, two days before the disaster, Globo TV reported on Wednesday.
An exchange of emails between executives at Vale, outside auditing firm TÜV SÜD and a third inspection firm on Jan. 23 discussed discrepancies in data obtained from automated instruments installed in the dam, as well as five other such instruments which appeared not to be working,” the report said, citing the deposition of a TÜV SÜD engineer, Makoto Namba.
Namba, one of two TÜV SÜD employees who were arrested in the days after the dam burst, said in the deposition that he was not made aware of the discrepancies until after the dam broke.
Namba also said he felt “pressured” by Vale employees to certify the dam that later burst in Brumadinho was stable. He was freed on Tuesday.
Vale declined to comment on the investigation but said it was cooperating with the probe. TÜV SÜD declined to comment on the report, noting that it has hired two law firms to help it probe its role in auditing the dam.
Reuters could not confirm the contents of the deposition.
The deposition was the latest in a series of reports to raise questions about whether there were missed warnings ahead of the dam burst, which unleashed an avalanche of toxic mud onto the surrounding countryside, destroying a corporate dining hall and a country inn among other buildings.
A report Vale commissioned last year from the same firm raised concerns over its drainage and monitoring systems, although it certified the dam as stable.
Reuters reported last week that one Vale executive identified concerns around its tailings dams as early as 2009, although the company did not implement several steps he pointed to that could have prevented or lessened the damage from the Jan. 25 dam collapsed.
Reporting by Christian Plumb; Editing by Lisa Shumaker
Brazil’s Lethal Environmental Negligence
The mining industry puts lives at risk with shoddy maintenance of dams built to contain mining waste.
By The Editorial Board
The editorial board represents the opinions of the board, its editor and the publisher. It is separate from the newsroom and the Op-Ed section.
31 January 2019
After the catastrophic rupture of a mine-tailings dam in Brazil last week, leaving behind at least 110 dead, 238 missing and an environmental disaster of epic proportions, the police were quick to arrest five peoplewho had been responsible for inspecting the dam and who most recently proclaimed it “stable.” Certainly they had erred, and courts will decide whether they did so criminally. But rounding up the usual suspects does not begin to address responsibility for a disaster of this scale and a danger many mining communities face around the world.
Tailings are the wet waste from mining operations, often laced with toxic chemicals. At thousands of mines around the world, millions of tons of the muck accumulate behind dams. The most common type of dam — and the cheapest to build — is known as “upstream,” made by piling up thick sludge and raising the height of the dam as the pond grows. At the mine where the accident occurred in southeastern Brazil, owned by the giant mining company Vale, the dam was 28 stories high.
The danger posed by tailings dams is well known. Three years ago another upstream dam in the same Brazilian state, Minas Gerais, and co-owned by Vale and Australia’s BHP Group, collapsed, killing 19 people. The muck from that mine flowed 400 miles to the Atlantic Ocean. Other dams have collapsed in many countries around the world, and while the overall number of failures each year has been declining, the occurrence of major collapses has increased. According to the database World Mine Tailings Failures, there were 46 “serious” or “very serious” collapses — such as those in Brazil — between 1998 and 2017.
One reason is increased rainfall because of climate change, which can erode a dam wall years after the tailings pool is no longer in use. One study found that heavy rain was cited as a contributor to a quarter of global dam failures. Given that there are thousands of tailings dams around the world, and that mining companies generate ever more waste — they produced 8.5 billion metric tons in 2017, more than double the amount in 2000, according to an Australian researcher — the dams pose a danger that arresting a few workers won’t address.
The cost of failures is high, as Vale is learning. Shares in the company plunged 24 percent on the Monday after the Friday accident, and Vale is likely to face billions of dollars in penalties. That cost alone should propel Vale and the rest of the mining industry to take an immediate look at the way that they dispose of mining sludge and to inspect their dams. A joint report in November 2017 by the United Nations Environment Program and the Norwegian foundation GRID-Arendal found that in most failures, there had been ample advance warning signs. “The tragedy is that the warning signs were either ignored or not recognized by under-resourced management,” the report said.
After the 2015 accident in the state of Minas Gerais, state and federal investigators urged hiring more dam inspectors. But the federal government slashed budgets, in effect leaving Vale and other companies to do their own monitoring. It’s far from certain that the government will do better this time: Brazil’s new right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, has already hobbled environmental regulators, and his infrastructure minister has warned against the “demonization” of Vale.
UN calls for probe into Vale’s tailings as waste heads to Brazilian river system
30 January 2019
United Nations human rights experts called for an urgent and impartial investigation on Wednesday into the collapse of Vale’s tailing dam in Brazil, which killed at least 99 people, as well as into the toxicity of the mining waste, which is now heading towards a river that provides drinking water to communities in five of the country's 26 states.
"The tailings dam used at Vale’s Córrego do Feijão mine was built in the 1970s using the “upstream construction” method, which has long been banned in Chile, Peru and other neighbouring countries."
Baskut Tuncak, the UN expert on disposal of hazardous substances, asked President Jair Bolsonaro to prioritize safety evaluations of dams and to change licencing procedures to prevent reoccurrence of these kinds of tragic incidents.
As grieving relatives bury family members and rescuers continue searching for 261 people still missing, Brazilian authorities and companies involved with river water management are trying to stop the torrent of mining waste from reaching the Sao Francisco river. Currently, Associated Press reports, the potentially toxic mud has contaminated the smaller Parapoeba river, which flows into the Sao Francisco.
Vale said on Tuesday it would halt 40 million tonnes of production — about 10% of its annual iron ore output — so that it can replace dams similar to the one that burst last week.
“This leaves a hole in the seaborne iron ore market,” BMO analyst Colin Hamilton wrote on Wednesday. “2019 has gone from a year where we were looking to displace marginal tonnes to one where we will need to incentivize additional higher cost material to market.”
As a result, BMO has hiked its 2019 62% Fe iron ore price forecast to $78 a tonne from a previous $63 per tonne.
U.N. calls for probe into Vale’s tailings as they head to large Brazilian river
The tailings dam collapse, seen on Sunday, Jan.27 from Sentinel-2. (Image courtesy of @CopernicusEU and @ sentinel_hub. )
The global community has been left with several unanswered questions, particularly about the causes of the dam breach and why Vale didn’t do anything earlier to prevent it. Reuters reported the iron ore producer had identified concerns around its tailings dams in 2009, but did not implement several steps that could have avoided or lessened the amount of damage.
"Vale will dismantle 10 dams that are similar to the one that collapsed on Friday, killing at least 84 people."
What is known is the tailings dam used at the mine was built in the 1970s using the “upstream construction” method. This is a design that has long been banned in earthquake-prone mining countries such as Chile and Peru because tailings are used to gradually build the embankment walls, making a dam susceptible to damage and cracks.
While Brazil is not as earthquake-prone a nation as its western neighbours, it’s been shown that even small seismic activity can affect tailings dams such as the one near Brumadinho.
Vale estimates it would need about $1.3 billion to decommission its upstream dams, a process that would take place over the next three years.
Half of the world’s biggest miners do not keep track of their tailings risk management measures -report
Valentina Ruiz Leotaud
10 February 2019
Following last month’s tailings dam disaster at Vale’s (NYSE: VALE) Córrego do Feijão mining complex, which left at least 140 dead, Amsterdam-based Responsible Mining Foundation issued a statement highlighting the findings of its 2018 Responsible Mining Index report related to miners’ tailing dams.
According to the report, many of the world’s largest mining companies are not able to ‘know and show’ how effectively they are addressing the risks of tailings dam failure and seepage.
“The 30 mining companies assessed in RMI 2018 scored an average of only 22% on tracking, reviewing and acting to improve their tailings risk management, with Vale scoring slightly above average. Fifteen of the 30 companies showed no evidence of keeping track of how effectively they are addressing these risks. And while 17 companies showed some sign of reviewing the effectiveness of their tailings risk management measures, no evidence was found of any of these companies publicly disclosing the extent to which they have taken systematic action on the basis of these reviews, to improve how they address tailings-related risks,” the document reads.
The RMF states that the deficiencies many miners show when it comes to sharing information is not limited to their tailings dams. In general, the organization’s study found that most companies fail to adequately share information on how they are managing social and environmental risks. In particular, they fail to provide meaningful site-level performance information.
“Too often, workers, mining-affected communities, governments and investors are kept in the dark about the risks involved and how well companies are addressing these risks. Companies may be reticent to publicly reveal this potentially detrimental and sensitive information, yet it is workers and communities whose lives and livelihoods depend on adequate protection measures being in place,” the report reads.
The Responsible Mining Foundation is convinced that public disclosure would not only save thousands of lives but would also improve the safety of mining projects by allowing for the expert advice of the community which, in turn, would result in improved knowledge of the terrain.
Based on a 2001 report by the International Commission on Large Dams which found that 221 tailings dam failures could have been prevented, the RMF states that by really incorporating the input of all stakeholders in the design, planning and building phases of their projects, miners can learn to refrain from mining in areas where tailings dam failures are most likely to happen and achieve a shared zero-failure objective to tailings storage facilities.
The foundation's research, on the other hand, has shown that failure risks are greatest for large, steep and old tailings dams in tropical zones where seismic activity and extreme weather events can precipitate dam collapses.
In the case of Vale’s facility, the RMF explained that it was built as part of a series of dams constructed upstream from the original dyke, which makes it the most likely type of tailings dam to fail.
“Vale has now committed to decommissioning all dams built by the upstream method and other companies can clearly follow suit,” the NGO suggested.