Brazilian firefighters on Sunday resumed searching for hundreds of people missing after a mining dam ruptured on Friday, triggering a deadly mudslide that buried mining facilities and nearby homes.
The search resumed after firefighters called off an evacuation of nearly 24,000 residents of Brumadinho, a town in Minas Gerais state hit by the mudslide, amid fears a second dam at the same mining complex could collapse.
Flavio Godinho, a spokesman for the Minas Gerais civil defence agency, confirmed on Sunday that the remaining dam at the Vale SA iron ore mining complex was no longer at risk of bursting.
Sirens began blaring before dawn on Sunday, triggered by dangerous water levels at the second tailings dam.
The dam is about 50m from the dam that burst on Friday.
The evacuation efforts diverted attention from the search for those missing after Friday’s burst dam unleashed a torrent of mud.
Roughly 300 people were still missing after the tailings dam burst, according to a list released by Vale, the second such disaster in the country in less than four years. The figure could rise as authorities reconcile their list of missing residents with the tally of Vale employees who are not accounted for.
Most of the missing are presumed dead, officials said.
The confirmed death toll rose to 37 by Sunday morning, according to the state fire department.
The disaster is now more deadly than a 2015 tailings dam collapse at an iron ore mine less than 100km to the east, belonging to Samarco Mineracao SA, a Vale joint venture with BHP Group.
The Samarco dam break spilled five times the mining waste unleashed by the more recent collapse. The 2015 incident killed 19 people, burying a small village and contaminating a major river in Brazil’s worst environmental disaster on record.
In Brumadinho, families and friends mourning their lost loved ones were forced to evacuate on Sunday.
Renato Maia, a 44-year-old salesman whose best friend's daughter remained missing, fled his home in panic early Sunday morning. At midday he and his wife waited on the outskirts of town for police to lift a blockade. They were both angry at the situation.
“We’re all fed up with Vale . . . and this is really adding to the tension,” he said. “It was a huge tragedy and now we don’t know what might come next.”
The Brazilian government has ordered Vale to halt operations at the Córrego do Feijao mining complex, the site of the Friday dam burst. Courts have frozen 11 billion reais (€2.6 billion) in Vale’s assets to pay for the damage.
Vale chief executive officer Fabio Schvartsman apologised without taking responsibility in a television interview on Saturday.
“Apologies to society, apologies to you, apologies to the whole world for what has happened,” he said. “I don’t know who is responsible, but you can be sure we’ll do our part.”
The cause of the dam burst remained unclear. Recent inspections by German auditor TUV SUD and Vale did not indicate any problems with the dam, the companies said.
Federal prosecutor Jose Adercio Sampaio told Reuters on Saturday that state and federal authorities have failed to apply more stringent regulation to the hundreds of tailings dams across the country.
Mr Schvartsman said all of Vale’s tailings dams were checked after the 2015 disaster and periodic reviews are carried out. – Reuters