Photograph: CNES Distribution Airbus DS
The mining dam collapse killed 19 people, polluted a river and devastated livelihoods. A year on, there’s controversy over the cleanup and level of damages
Nearly one year on from the worst environmental disaster in Brazilian history, the Gualaxo do Norte river in the south-eastern state of Minas Gerais still runs iron-ore red. At 3.45pm on 5 November 2015 a huge tailings dam operated by Brazilian mining company Samarco collapsed and a tidal wave of 32m to 40m cubic meters of mining waste washed across the bucolic countryside of pretty green valleys, villages and farmland. The waste – a liquid mix of water, sands and clays – killed 19 people, destroyed villages, left hundreds homeless, and killed fish and aquatic life as it flowed on down the bigger River Doce to the sea more than 600km away. News of the dam break sent local farmers Geraldo Nascimento, 85, and his wife Francisca da Silva, 74, running. The mud broke through their farmhouse walls, covered its interior, and buried their small sugar cane plantation.
“We left with the clothes on our backs,” says Da Silva.
The cleanup is expected to take more than a decade and is already bogged down in controversy. Critics say Samarco – a joint venture between mining giants Vale and BHP Billiton – just wants to cover over the mess and reopen the mine. There’s certainly a financial incentive to resume operations. In August BHP announced a record loss of $6.4bn (£5.2bn), due to the dam collapse as well as a slump in commodity prices. A month later Samarco said it wanted to restructure debts after failing to make a $13.4m payment. “All Samarco’s effort is focused on a return to its activities and not on society and environmental recuperation,” says Carlos Pinto, coordinator of a group of environmental prosecutors in the state of Minas Gerais, where the tragedy happened. Yet Da Silva says Samarco is doing a good job – and has quickly reopened roads and rebuilt a nearby bridge after the disaster. The company pays the rent for a nearby house where they live and has promised to build them a new home – just as it has agreed to build new communities to replace the villages destroyed.
“We have to hope for their goodwill,” says Da Silva.
Not all local residents share their optimism. Ivaldil de Souza, 73, farmed cattle on 300 hectares of land nearby until the mud flooded across his land and reached up to the veranda of the house. He has yet to receive an indemnity promised in August and is angry about the Samarco’s planting of fast-growing plants to secure the mud around his house. “They said would come and plant other things. But it’s stayed like this,” he says. A Samarco spokeswoman says that planting on top of the mud was an emergency measure being monitored for its effectiveness to reduce erosion and the mud being swept away. Behind his house, where three metre-high tidemarks stain dead trees, Samarco workmen have secured the banks of a stream with netting and rocks, and rerouted it around what had been a lake.
“Why did they change the river?” De Souza asks.
In July, Brazil’s federal environment agency Ibama published a report that criticised Samarco’s environmental recuperation works and questioned its recovery of rivers, noting that at times their routes had even been changed. “From the environmental point of view, this is worrying,” says Gustavo de Oliveira, Ibama’s general coordinator for recuperation in the area. Samarco’s spokeswoman said the company had recuperated 61 tributaries and endeavoured to keep to original courses. In some cases where the original route could not be found or the “hydrological dynamic” determined a change, adjustments had been made. The company had spent 650m reais (£166m) on recuperation works by June this year. In March, Samarco, Vale and BHP Billiton signed an agreement with the federal government for socioeconomic and environmental recovery work worth a total of around 20bn reais (£5bn) over 15 years.
The company will finance the recovery of 5,000 streams along the River Doce, reforest 10,000 hectares and restore another 30,000 hectares. In August it launched the Renova (Renew) Foundation to carry out the work. However, the agreement is now in legal limbo after a high court judge suspended the settlement. In May federal prosecutors in Minas Gerais launched a separate legal action for 155bn reais (£40bn) in damages – a figure based on the amount paid by BP after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. “The tragedy of Mariana revealed a series of failures of planning, of control and of risk management,” prosecutors said in a statement at the time. All parties have now begun a conciliation process. Samarco says it is continuing to meet the terms of the agreement while it awaits a resolution. And Samarco’s problems are multiplying. In June, an investigation by Brazil’s federal police concluded the company knew the dam was at risk before it collapsed. Drainage was a problem, the report said, as was the constant heightening of the dam which was not properly monitored. The police recommended charges against eight people. In August, Samarco published an independent report commissioned from US law firm Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton. This deeply technical study concluded that the dam collapsed after the liquefaction of iron ore mining waste caused by the interaction between two types of tailings – sands and slimes – and “unplanned occurrences” during its construction and operation. A minor earthquake on the day of the disaster may have “accelerated the failure process that was already well-advanced”, the report concluded.
Samarco has already been fined 250m reals (£64m) by Ibama and 112m reais (£28m) by the Minas Gerais state government’s environment agency, Semad. It is appealing all the fines and has yet to pay any of them, Samarco’s spokeswoman says. More controversy surrounds Samarco’s plan to secure the millions of cubic meters of mining waste still left in the complex – a series of dykes, of which three have been built. The fourth will flood part of the mud-covered area where the village of Bento Rodrigues once was. Both Ibama and Semad approved the plan, despite an internal Semad report saying it and future dykes planned along the Gualaxo do Norte river “would not be effective” in retaining the mud, or helping clean the water.
Some critics suggested this could turn the devastated area into a giant new tailings dam – Samarco will need somewhere to store waste if it goes back to production – while simultaneously covering up the symbolic destruction of the village Bento Rodrigues, images of whose mud-sunk houses went around the world. “It is possible that Samarco is going to make the whole region a big system for future waste deposit,” says Pinto, the prosecutor. But this is mining country and a groundswell of local support wants Samarco’s mining complex working again. The company says in a brochure for the Renew Foundation that it invested 9.1bn reais (£2.3bn) in Brazil from 2011-2015 and paid 54% of tax revenues in the nearby town of Mariana.
On a recent afternoon, unemployed men lounged around a colonial square in Mariana say tourism had failed to provide the jobs lost since Samarco stopped operating and people wanted to move on from the tragedy.
“The city is divided. Many say it was an accident. Others that it was Samarco’s fault,” says Jeffrey Fernandes, 22, an unemployed local man. “Everyone hopes it goes back to production.”