Brazil dam disaster ‘inevitable’ due to poor safety standards, say officials

Chief prosecutor says there are ‘culprits’ in mining-dam rupture that killed at least 37

An aerial view over mud and waste from the disaster caused by dam spill in Brumadinho. Photogrpah: EPA/Antonio Lacerda

An aerial view over mud and waste from the disaster caused by dam spill in Brumadinho. Photogrpah: EPA/Antonio Lacerda

 

A second mining disaster in just three years involving the same company has provoked widespread fury in Brazil as evidence emerged that engineers had expressed concerns about a dam that ruptured on Friday engulfing hundreds of people in a torrent of mud.

Rescuers said 37 people were confirmed dead and more than 250 are still missing at the Brumadinho mine in Minas Gerais state which is owned by mining giant Vale.

Worker installations including a restaurant, busy for lunchtime, and small villages below the dam were engulfed by iron ore waste after it ceded on Friday afternoon.

Rescue and recovery efforts at the scene had to be suspended early on Sunday amidst concerns another dam at the mine might rupture.

A similar dam at a mine in Mariana in the same state, and co-owned by Vale, collapsed in 2015 killing 19 people and causing one of Brazil’s worst-ever environmental disaster as a river of highly contaminated sludge devastated a 650km (403 miles) stretch of the Doce river before reaching the Atlantic.

‘Everything was shaking and I saw huge trees and people disappearing under the mud,’ said Emerson dos Santos, 30, who sits on the roof of his family home to protect what is left from looters at the mud-hit area a day after the dam collapse. Photograph: Mauro Pimentel/AFP/Getty Images
‘Everything was shaking and I saw huge trees and people disappearing under the mud,’ said Emerson dos Santos, 30, who sits on the roof of his family home to protect what is left from looters at the mud-hit area a day after the dam collapse. Photograph: Mauro Pimentel/AFP/Getty Images

Raquel Dodge, prosecutor general of Brazil, quickly assembled a task force to investigate the disaster and said on Saturday that “there is definitely a culprit or more than one culprit” for the disaster and that authorities had to hold the companies involved responsible.

She said the mineral-rich state of Minas Gerais alone had 700 similar dams at mines that would now need to be checked.

Prosecutors who investigated the Mariana disaster said that Friday’s tragedy was almost inevitable, as little had been done to improve safety at the state’s mines in the last three years.

Satellite images show an area northeast of Brumadinho, in June, 2018, top, and below, on Saturday, January 26th, 2019, after the dam burst and the area was flooded with mud. Photograph: DigitalGlobe, a Maxar company/AP
Satellite images show an area northeast of Brumadinho, in June, 2018, top, and below, on Saturday, January 26th, 2019, after the dam burst and the area was flooded with mud. Photograph: DigitalGlobe, a Maxar company/AP

There is also rising public anger after claims that efforts to toughen safety codes at mines in Minas following the 2015 disaster were successfully watered down after a lobbying effort mounted by mining companies.

A proposal that had the backing of the country’s federal prosecution service and its environmental regulator was voted down last year in the state assembly.

João Vitor Xavier, the state deputy behind the measure, blamed intense lobbying by the mining sector for its defeat.

“They prefer to raise the margin of profit to the margin of security,” he said.

After flying over the scene of the disaster on Saturday, Brazil’s new president Jair Bolsonaro took to Twitter to say his government would do all it could to prevent new tragedies like Mariana and Brumadinho.

During last year’s campaign he virulently attacked Brazil’s environmental regulator accusing it of holding back the country’s economy and promised to liberalise laws to allow companies like Vale to push deeper into the Amazon rainforest.