Brazil’s Vale and the ‘never again’ mining disasters

From ToxicLeaks

Brazil’s Vale SA[edit | edit source]

On February 16, 2019, the Brazilian mining giant Vale SA escalated its emergency response at the B3/B4 dam at Mar Azul, an iron ore mine in Nova Lima in southeastern Minas Gerais state. “For safety reasons, Vale is removing about 200 people,” the company said, “from an area comprising 49 buildings (homes and commercial buildings).” The evacuations came with the siren warnings of a potential dam failure.

It was the third such recent evacuation in the vicinity, following those of Barão de Cocais and Itatiaiuçu. While there were no immediate reports of a mine tailings dam failure – or evidence of its imminence – the Saturday-night alarm came just two days after public hearings in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of legislators in the Brazilian national assembly. Those hearings focused on the January 25, 2019, Vale dam failure at Brumhadino, which killed at least 166 people.  The company website lists hundreds of names of the yet-missing too: There are 705 provided by Civil Defense, including located survivors.

Vale, the world leader in iron ore, also operates copper, nickel, coal and other mines. Those operations require mine tailing reservoirs to contain the contaminated and frequently toxic liquid byproducts of the mining process. Vale has 133 such iron ore dams in Brazil, with 105 of them – or 80 percent – in Minas Gerais. The state’s own name reflects more than 300 mines that dot a land area larger than France.

What Minas Gerais also has are as many fears over dam failures as there are mines, and those fears are becoming a tragic reality far too often. Just three years prior to Brumhadino, the 2015 Mariana dam disaster at a Vale-BHP Billiton joint venture was, at the time, the worst environmental catastrophe in Brazil’s history. When Vale CEO Fabio Schvartsman took over the firm in 2017, he promised an end to those fears. “We must all adopt a motto: ‘Mariana never again,’” he said. “This is the last time that this company is involved, directly or indirectly, in an ecological and social disaster on the scale of Mariana.”

Yet the 2015 Fundão dam failure at the Germano mine near Mariana – sometimes called the Bento Rodrigues disaster – clearly wasn’t the last, with far more people dying at Brumhadino than the 19 lives claimed in the 2015 incident. Minas Gerais has had enough, even as Schvartsman says the company is a “Brazilian jewel” that, while surprised by the disaster, acted in good faith and can’t be held responsible.

The 2019 Brumhadino dam disaster[edit | edit source]

The CEO of Vale, who remained seated during the February hearing as everyone else rose for a moment of silence, may think his company is not accountable but Brazilian prosecutors have disagreed. Eight company employees were arrested on February 15, 2019, and stand accused of knowing that the dam at the Corrego do Feijão mine near Brumhadino was at risk of failing. Another five people from Vale and the German firm TÜV SÜD, which was responsible for certifying its safety, also were arrested but released in early February. An investigation into the causes of the dam failure, and longterm impacts, remained ongoing. The immediate impacts, while appearing to affect a smaller geographic area than the 2015 Mariana failure, were devastating to the environment and caused significantly more fatalities.

The 2015 Mariana dam disaster[edit | edit source]

On November 5, 2015, the Fundão dam at the Germano mine owned by Samarco – the name of the Vale-BHP Billiton joint venture – released an estimated 33 million cubic meters of mine waste when it failed. The immediate mud flows killed 19 people, wiped out the Bento Rodrigues community, and took 17 days to course through 650 kilometers of Brazilian waterways before reaching the Atlantic Ocean. That spread of toxic mine waste demonstrates the environmental and public health crisis caused by the breach, beyond the immediate human and community toll. A November 2017 report from the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the Norwegian GRID-Arendal organization found that about 400,000 people had water supply disrupted in downstream Minas Gerais and neighboring Espirito Santo state. At least 11 tons of fish were killed by the mudflow, which also destroyed 1,469 hectares of forest and impacted traditional livelihoods. Other impacts to the rivers included silting that changed the depth and in some cases dried up the flow, acidic death of aquatic life, and turbidity-related changes to light.

An investigation led to criminal charges against 22 executives of Samarco, including Vale and BHP Billiton directors. It also led to a USD$48 billion civil lawsuit and $680 million for restoration costs and remediation, in addition to $1 billion immediate cleanup costs and millions in state and federal fines. The legal cases remained in progress, with company officials denying they knew of clearly documented risks. Meanwhile, even as the new and deadlier Vale mine tailings dam catastrophe occurred in 2019, local officials and residents in Brazil say Vale has failed to comply with compensations for Mariana. "Mariana had to be a reference for Brazil, so that it would not happen again," said the city’s mayor.

Government complicity and the Bolsonaro future[edit | edit source]

It did happen again, despite the promises of mining CEOS and the Brazilian government, and the devastation caused by Brazil’s dam failures and massive mine tailing releases will continue to happen until Brazilian officials enforce compliance with safety and environmental regulations. Industry experts and environmental advocates alike say the Brumhadino dam failure was avoidable, pointing to the cheaper but less reliable “upstream” damming method and inconsistent technical monitoring as well as the cozy relationships between government inspectors, environmental agents and mining companies.

"In Brazil and Minas, it is the ore above everything and everyone," said anthropologist Andréa Zhouri, coordinator of the Environmental Issues Studies Group of the Federal University of Minas Gerais, in an interview with National Geographic.  Another environmental advocate called the dams “time bombs.”

Brumhadino resident Soraia Campos described to Brazilian lawmakers what it’s like when those bombs go off. "In the garden where I lived and raised my children 20 years ago, 32 bodies were found," he said, demanding justice for communities. "This place, which was blessed, today is a graveyard of innocents. Eighteen families there were dependent on land and water, which today are under 15 meters of mud. "

Since the 2015 Mariana disaster, the government has sought to enact tougher legislation controlling the tailing pond dams in Minas Gerais, but neither existing nor future laws matter if not properly enforced. According to the World Mine Tailings Failures database, the incidence of severe tailings failures continues its global upward trend. “Without major changes to law and regulation, and to industry practices, and without new technology that substantially reduces risk and increases loss control, our current prediction is for 19 Very Serious Failures between 2018 and 2027.” The GRID Arendal-UNEP report adds that heavy rains, extreme storms and other changes tied to climate change raise concern over future mining dam disasters. They also raise the alarm over communal inequality and human rights.

For Brazil, today’s Brumhadino disaster and tomorrow’s climate challenges come under the leadership of newly elected President Jair Bolsonaro. His hostility to environmental regulation is well-documented. It’s already been difficult to pass environmental regulation that holds the mining companies to higher standards and not likely to get easier – and it’s only a matter of time until “never again” happens again.