Brazil Dam Disaster: 84 Dead, 276 Missing, River Turns Brown, Mine Executives Arrested, 10 Similar Dams To Be Dismantled, Echoes Of Samarco

Brasilia, Brazil

Brazil Iron Ore giant Vale SA has announced that it will dismantle 10 dams similar to the tailings dam in the Brazilian town of Brumadinho, which collapsed January 25 releasing a flood of mining waste that killed at least 84 people, with a further 276 currently reported missing.

Fabio Schvartsman, CEO of Vale, the world’s largest iron ore miner, said it would temporarily suspend operations using those dams and spend $1.3 Billion USD to decommission them over the next three years. "We decided the company should, once and for all, do what it takes to remove any doubt about the safety of Vale's dams," Schvartsman said.

The announcement came after the January 29 arrest of three Vale employees and two contractors in connection with the disaster. The two contractors worked for German consultancy firm TUEV SUED, which had recently carried out safety studies concluding the tailings dam was stable. The Vale employees were allegedly directly involved in obtaining the licensing for the mining project, public prosecutors said.

Documents have been seized by authorities from Vale's headquarters, the Águas Claras mine and an office in Sao Paolo.

Possible ecological damage caused by the disaster has been reported about 18 kilometers downstream from the dam where the normally greenish Paraopeba River has been turned brown by nud. Associated Press reporters have described dead fish, garbage and refuse like plastic sandals floating on the river banks. Pataxco Indians living there say they had been told by Brazilian environmental workers not to fish, take baths in the river or use river water to water the plants they cultivate for food.

Echoes of Samarco

The Brumadinho disaster has echoes of a similar deadly dam burst just over three years ago at the nearby Samarco mine jointly owned by Vale and Australia’s BHP Billiton. 21 mining executives were subsequently charged with manslaughter and environmental crimes.

In July 2018, Vale and BHP finally signed an agreement with Brazilian authorities to settle a $5.28 Billion USD civil lawsuit related to the 2015 tailings dam failure at the Samarco iron ore mine they operated in the state of Minas Gerais.

The companies also then reached an agreement for the suspension of a larger $40.97 Billion USD civil claim for a period of two years. This civil claim was initiated in May 2016 by federal prosecutors for social, environmental and economic compensation.

On November 5, 2015, the rupture of the Samarco mine’s Fundao tailings dam killed 19 people and flooded surrounding areas with tens of millions of cubic meters of wastewater and sludge that subsequently flowed into the Doce River and down to the Atlantic Ocean.

Federal Brazilian prosecutors claimed the companies failed to take actions that they say could have prevented the disaster, claiming that the company focused on cutting costs and increasing production.

It has also been claimed that the government of Minas Gerais state may have been aware of the issues at Samarco's mine ahead of the disaster. It has been reported that officials working for the state government had conducted surveys and inquiries into the structural problems that caused the disaster for several years before it occurred.