An aerial picture taken a day after a dam burst in Bento Rodrigues, a village of some 600 people near the Brazilian southeastern city of Mariana in the historic mining region of Minas Gerais, on Nov. 6, 2015.

Slow-Motion Catastrophe in Brazil

On November 5, a mine burst in Brazil, sweeping away the town of Bento Rodrigues. 17 people are dead, and two remain missing. 50 million metres of red mud have slithered 800 km. down the Rio Doce River, tainting drinking water for hundreds of thousands of residents, killing aquatic life, and threatening Atlantic coastal fisheries. The President of Brazil’s environmental agency said, “We have thousands of hectares of protected areas destroyed and the total extinction of all biodiversity along this stretch of the river.” The UN has stated the tailings are toxic — a claim the companies deny.  At the same time, Vale has warned it will take “several years” for the Rio Doce to recover. The Earth Institute predicts 15 to 20 years. Other estimates range from five months to never.

The chief executives of Vale and BHP have offered apologies and insist they will honour their obligations. In a December 21 update, BHP confirmed that a New York-based law firm and Latin American specialist will lead an “external’’ investigation and make the findings public. The moves follow a Brazilian court ruling giving the companies 30 days to deposit 10 % of the $US5.5 billion into a fund for clean-up and compensation. Vale plans to appeal the decision; BHP states it has received no formal notice of the ruling. Samarco, the mine and dam operator, is a joint venture of Brazilian iron ore giant Vale and Anglo-Australian mining group BHP Billiton.

There may have been safety warnings about the dam. According to Brazil’s Deputy Attorney-General, “Vale and BHP were totally careless in preventing this.  They did not show a plan of action in case of disaster. They had no alarm system in place.”