On Friday, the Brumadinho dam in Brazil collapsed, unleashing 12 million cubic metres of mud and killing at least 84 people in the area, with 272 still missing, according to Al Jazeera’s figures. Firefighters and rescuers are still recovering bodies from the mudslide, but, over 72 hours after the disaster, they are unlikely to find more survivors. The cause of the collapse is as yet unknown, but anger is mounting against Vale, the mining giant which owned and ran the dam.
In the aftermath of the disaster, Vale released a statement saying that it was “collaborating fully with the authorities”, and that it would “continue to help with investigations to find out the facts”, and had “unconditional support to the affected families”. Vale has been ordered to pay $58 million by the Brazilian Ministry of the Environment, and it is also being sued for a further $25 million by the state government of Minas Gerais, the locality of the dam. The company has responded with further promises that it will pay $25,000 to each affected family, decommission all 10 dams in Minas Gerais, and decrease iron-ore output by 10%. However, skepticism is running high since Vale failed to address the causes of another of its dam’s collapses back in 2015, which unleashed 60 million cubic metres of mining waste into the city of Mariana. As Al Jazeera reports, only 4% of the damages Vale was ordered to pay has been paid out.
Leticia Lucimeri, whose 29 year old boyfriend is missing, said to Al Jazeera that working conditions in the dam were “inhumane”. She further stated: “We are such a small town, everyone knows each other and everyone knew what was happening with the dam. No one reported it because they were afraid of losing their jobs, we are going through a crisis, we have to work”. Similarly, a resident named Helton told Channel News Asia, “I told them [my wife and sister] to leave [the dam]. And they said no, because they needed the work”. While it is unclear what caused the Brumadinho dam to collapse, the fact that many workers felt they had no choice but to work in unsafe conditions suggests a need for government to intervene. As Al Jazeera reports, there are over 4,000 “high risk” dams with “high damage potential” being operated by companies all over Brazil. The National Mining Agency had in fact rated the Brumadinho dam “low risk”, as CNN reported, calling into questions the entire Brazilian rating system for mining safety standards.
Not only, however, is this a question of the safety of workers across Brazil, but it is also an ecological problem, as tailings dams store mineral-laced mining waste, and there is risk of contamination if they collapse. Leda de Oliviera told Channel News Asia [CNA] that, “Most of the people around here [by Minas Gerais] are rural river dwellers. So, we use the Paraopeba river for food, for fishing, for irrigation, and now we can’t do any of that”, as the mudslide has contaminated the rivers and caused the death of fish populations. There are also fears that pollution from the mine waste could reach hydroelectric power plants in early February, as CNA reports. Moreover, it seems that if both workers and the environment are to be protected, greater pressure must be exerted on mining corporations to keep better safety standards.
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