According to The Guardian, 110 people have been confirmed dead with 238 still unaccounted for after a dam collapsed at the Córrego de Feijão iron ore mine in Brumadhino, Brazil. The 86-metre-high dam released a flood of 12 million cubic metres of liquid mining waste and debris, which buried buildings in the mine as well as parts of the small city. This is the deadliest mine disaster ever to have happened in Brazil and is being considered an environmental disaster due to the amount of land affected. Vale, the company which operated the 42-year-old dam, stated that it had been in the process of decommission, but had passed structural safety tests, Al Jazeera writes.
Unfortunately, Brazil is all too familiar with dam collapses. In 2015, another mine in the same town of Minas Gerais collapsed killing 19 people and releasing over 60 million cubic metres of waste. Known as Brazil’s worst ever environmental disaster, this dam was owned jointly by Vale and BHP Billiton, Al Jazeera reports. The Brazilian branch of environmental group Greenpeace said the latest disaster is “a sad consequence of the lessons not learned by the Brazilian government and mining companies.”
At this point, Vale faces only financial repercussions, as around US$1.3 billion of Vale’s assets have been frozen by the Brazilian government. The Brazilian Ministry for the Environment also fined Vale US$58 million, while the state government of Minas Gerais is suing Vale for US$25m, The Guardian reports. However, many Brazilians are calling for more stringent regulations and enforcements against such companies. Marina Silva, a former environment minister, said “taking measures to prevent situations like this is just as important as rescuing victims.” She also said congress must accept part of the blame for failing to increase safety regulations, writes Al Jazeera.
Simply fining Vale – and other companies involved in disasters like this – is clearly not effective in preventing further tragedies. Higher safety standards and more active enforcement by the government is needed to ensure that these companies are operating safely. Those in charge of checking safety compliance are also not doing enough; a quick chat to the employees would have revealed the poor conditions, and one worker even said many of them “knew this would happen,” writes Al Jazeera.
Many fear this is becoming a pattern, as Vale owns 4,000 dams across the country which are at “high risk” of collapsing, or “have damage potential,” CNN writes. This dam was considered “low risk” before the collapse, which questions the legitimacy of the National Mining Agency’s assessment procedure. A first course of action would be for the government to close the “high risk” dams, and work with Vale to improve the safety of those at risk but still operable. This incident serves as a warning for all mining companies to check and improve the safety of all their sites. From a purely commercial perspective, disasters like this are highly inefficient, costly and terrible for their reputation; hopefully this is enough to motivate them to take appropriate action, even if the cost of human suffering is not.
This tragedy is indicative of a larger problem of corporate negligence facing many countries today. Developing countries are the most vulnerable to bullying by large conglomerates as they need the employment and tax revenue which companies like Vale provide. Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro previously stated that he would even give more freedom to such companies, likely as an incentive for more firms to set up in Brazil. However, President Bolsonaro should put his people before corporations, and realise that the more he is willing to accept from companies, the less they will care about their employees, the environment, and the consequences of poor management.