Bento rodrigues dam disaster

From ToxicLeaks

In November 2015, Brazil was hit by the biggest environmental catastrophe of its history. A dam that was holding iron ore tailings from iron mines burst and flooded a huge area with 60 million cubic meters of toxic iron waste. This is yet another epic failure of the mining industry because this dam was managed by Samarco, a company jointly owned by Vale and BHP-Billiton. However, this disaster is also the proof that state laxism towards these companies is quite as criminal.

A disaster that should have been averted[edit | edit source]

This disaster could have been and should have been averted. Investigations have already shown that the Fundão dam that burst had been reported as unsafe by exterior surveys but that Samarco failed to take their alarms into consideration. Prosecutors for the state of Minas Gerais where the dam is located claim that Samarco was negligent and didn’t take the measures needed to ensure the safety of the dam. Indeed in 2013, a report made by the Institute Pristino sounded the alarm about the dam's safety and called for a contingency plan and a “dam break analysis”. However, Samarco produced in 2015 its own report about the safety of its dam. It used a company called VOGBR and the report claimed that the dam was safe. The only problem is that it collapsed a few months after that. As Carlos Pinto, head of the prosecutors pointed out, : “It is not possible for a dam to be that safe and a few months later have a disaster of this magnitude”. It's clear that the Samarco assessment of the safety of its dam was not thorough and that the Vale and BHP-Billiton funded company chose to ignore the imminent danger facing the dam. Of course increasing the safety of the dam would have been expensive and would have cut into the profits of the company. Instead of increasing safety, Samarco chose to increase the waste held by the dam. So it chose profits over safety, over the lives of the Brazilians living in the area, over the lives of its own workers, and over the environment. This is also a major debacle for Brazilian authorities. A reform of the mining code had been launched in the Senate two years before the flood, but made very little progress in enhancing regulations. The crisis has proven that they couldn't give big corporations like Vale and BHP-Billiton free reign to regulate themselves. When free to do so, they always act irresponsibly and inflict terrible damage on the environment and the people.

Dam burst and toxic flooding of the area[edit | edit source]

The Fundão dam that Samarco promised was safe started leaking on the 5th of November, around 3:30 PM. Samarco sent a team to try and remedy the leak but it was too late, less than an hour later the dam ruptured and a massive amount of iron waste flooded the Santarém valley, where the people of the subdistrict of Bento Rodrigues lived. Another dam was overrun and very nearly burst too. The rescue of the residents was all the more difficult given that no contingency plan had been devised and therefore no one was prepared to face the disaster that was unfolding. 600 people were finally evacuated to the neighboring town of Mariana, and the Brazilian army was deployed to face the disaster and assist the residents in need of help. 19 people died in the flood, drowned in the sludge of sediment and toxic waste. The survivors had seen their houses along with their whole lives get submerged by the iron waste. Lives wrecked by the carelessness of Samarco and its two mastodont funders, Vale and BHP-BILLITON.

Irresponsible management of the crisis[edit | edit source]

Not only were these bloated corporations responsible of the initial flooding, but they have continued to endanger the people of the area by their tragically callous management of the aftermath. For instance, Samarco and BHP-Billiton have hammered that the water that had flooded the area was safe and contained no toxins. According to BHP-BILLITON, the sludge was really made of mud, and its elements were no threat to people : "They will not change chemical composition in water and will behave in the environment like normal soils in the catchment". However, the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the UN stated that new studies showed that the water "contained high levels of toxic heavy metals and other toxic chemicals". This proves that Samarco and BHP-BILLITON were lying and were only trying to lessen what they perceived as a PR nightmare, even if it meant exposing the people of the area to more danger. It did seem quite strange that iron tailings would not be dangerous for human health ! Iron tailings are what is left of the rocks that are mined for ores and metal. Basically, it's everything that isn't valuable for mining companies, and therefore it's bound to contain some unsafe elements. But this didn't stop Samarco from launching a new advertising campaign in February to insist that the water is safe, showing incredible cynicism along the way! Furthermore, the UN pointed out that the reaction of Samarco, Vale, BHP-BILLITON and the Brazilian authorities had been extremely insufficient : "the government and companies should be doing everything within their power to prevent further harm". However, they didn't and the disaster had a dramatic impact on the environment and on the people who trusted them.

A human and environmental disaster[edit | edit source]

The flood caused by the collapse of Fundao dam had been described as the worst environmental catastrophe in Brazilian history. 19 people died and 650 residents were relocated because Samarco's mistakes destroyed their homes. But the people of the area of Bento Rodrigues weren't the only ones to be affected. Indeed the mud wave flowed into nearby rivers like the Rio Doce, that supplies hundreds of thousands of people with drinking water. The mud made the water thick and untreatable so cities like Governador Valadares had to cut off the water supply to its citizens. What's more, the mud flowed over hundreds of kilometers, damaging the ecosystems, filling the rivers. The mud has destroyed the plant life in the rivers and the oceans. Thousands of fish died in the Rio Doce, killed by the lethal wave that flowed towards the ocean. There is also a lot of worry for some species that could be severely hit. The endangered leatherback turtle could find its traditional nesting grounds severely disrupted which could threaten the turtle population. The full extent of the environmental destructions and the human suffering that Samarco, Vale and BHP-BILLITON caused can't even be estimated for now.

The hypocrisy of both the states and the corporations[edit | edit source]

This disaster has prompted many reactions from Brazilian authorities and from Samarco, Vale and BHP-BILLITON, and all of them are incredibly hypocritical. Dilma Rousseff, the Brazilian president, initially fined Samarco $66 million but has since increased the fine to around $5 billion. This fine is only one part of the penalties Samarco, Vale and BHP-BILLITON face. There is an ongoing investigation for environmental crimes and executives from these companies could be personally prosecuted. However, while this strong government response is something to celebrate, one shouldn't forget that it's governmental laxism that let these companies cause this disaster in the first place. Government is also to blame for not having monitored the activities of these companies.

Still, the companies carry most of the blame of course, for putting the whole area at risk in their blind drive for profit, which is what makes some of their statements quite dishonest. Samarco submitted a plan at the end of January to clean up the area it destroyed, but the plan was rejected by Brazil's environmental authorities, who judged it “general and superficial”. After having wrecked the land and rivers of Brazil, Samarco should have done much more to fix the problem it caused. In this we find yet again the urge to keep the spending to a minimum. The same obsession that got them to cut corners and set off this disaster in the first place.

BHP and Vale are consistent with their environmental track record[edit | edit source]

This historical catastrophe is not a surprise given BHP-BILLITON and Vale's track record in terms of environment. BHP-BILLITON was listed as one of the 90 companies that are responsible for having generated 63 % of the greenhouse gas emitted between 1751 and 2010. And it ranks very high in that list scoring as the 19th largest polluter, with 0,52% of the global greenhouse gas emissions since 1751. Being such a heavy contributor to global warming, BHP-BILLITON's implication in this disaster doesn't come as a shock. Vale is no better. It was voted worst company of the year in 2012 in an event organised by the Berne Declaration and Greenpeace Switzerland because of the Belo Monte dam Vale was building in the Amazonian forest, "with devastating consequences for the region's unique biodiversity and indigenous tribes." With this dam collapse and its disastrous consequence, these companies confirm their reputation as global threats to the environment and the people that live close to their endeavours.