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News > Brazil

Brazilians Demand Justice for Victims of Tailings Dam Collapse

  • Demonstrators perform during a protest against Brazilian mining company Vale SA, in Belo Horizonte, Brazil February 1, 2019.

    Demonstrators perform during a protest against Brazilian mining company Vale SA, in Belo Horizonte, Brazil February 1, 2019. | Photo: Reuters

Published 2 February 2019

It's the second fatal collapse of a tailings dam in the state of Minas Gerais.

Thousands of people in Brazil have protested for five consecutive days demanding justice after the collapse of two dams in Minas Gerais, in 2015 and 2019, in which related mining companies were involved.


The Tragic Aftermath of Brazil's Deadly Dam Break

The Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB) gathered outside the Brazilian Attorney General’s office to demand justice for the Samarco crime of 2015, when a dam failed and its sludge destroyed a village and killed 19 people.

Along with other social movements, the MAB also protested in several municipalities of Minas Gerais state, where both incidents took place.

On Jan. 25, 2019, a tailings dam burst, submerging the nearby town of Brumadinho in mining waste in what could be the worst mining disaster in Brazil’s history. At least 115 people were killed and about 238 went missing, with 108 left homeless.

Members of the MAB are accompanying the affected families of the Brumadinho disaster, caused by the Brazilian mining company Vale SA, co-owner of Samarco, the dam that collapsed less than four years ago.

According to a state regulator, the most recent collapse likely happened because parts of the sand and dried-mud structure dissolved into liquid, similar to what caused the previous deadly mining disaster that flooded the Bento Rodrigues village.

Rescue workers search for victims of a collapsed tailings dam owned by Brazilian mining company Vale SA, in Brumadinho, Brazil February 2, 2019. Photo | Reuters

The Brazil Popular Front, which has organized and led protests against mining companies in Minas Gerais and the rest of the country, gathered at the company’s headquarters in Belo Horizonte to protests while hundreds of demonstrators blocked a road near to Brumadinho to prevent company trucks reaching the site.

People have protested in Belo Horizonte since Tuesday, demanding justice with some saying Vale’s top executives should be jailed.

Three employees of Vale and two other engineers working on behalf of the company were arrested Tuesday.

An internal study showed the company knew as recently as last year that some of the areas swamped with toxic mud were at risk if the dam burst, according to a report by Folha de S.Paulo newspaper. Vale described the document as a routine disaster preparation plan required by regulators.

Cristiano Meirelles, from the state coordinator of the Rural Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), said that the people “still have to understand.”

“On one side there’s the news about hundreds of workers killed by Vale’s sludge. At the same time, the mining companies in Brumadinho are still working,” said Meirelles.

The disaster poses a headache for the new government of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, whose new business-friendly administration must juggle public anger over the tragedy and its own desire to ease mining and environmental regulations to kick-start growth.

A nun holds a sign reading " It was not an accident, it was a crime " during a protest against the Brazilian mining company Vale SA, in front of the Se Cathedral in Sao Paulo, Brazil, February 1, 2019. Photo | Reuters

Hildebrando Neto, Minas Gerais' deputy minister for environmental regulations, told Reuters late on Thursday that all evidence suggests that the burst was caused by liquefaction, whereby a solid material such as sand loses strength and stiffness and behaves more like a liquid.

Dams holding mining waste, known as tailings, sometimes collapse for this reason.

Major Brazilian TV outlets obtained dramatic security camera video showing the outer wall of the dam collapsing and an avalanche of mud crushing trees, houses and cars in its path. Closeups replayed throughout the day showed cars and people scrambling unsuccessfully to escape the dark red torrent.

Officials with the Mines and Energy Ministry and the National Mining Agency (ANM) told reporters on Friday that the cause of the rupture was still unclear.

"If we had known (what the problem was), maybe this tragedy would have never happened," the ministry’s mining secretary, Alexandre Vidigal, said. "We are in the investigation phase and we cannot say whether the (inspection) model was adequate or not."

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