Brazil’s problem with mine waste safety

22nd Feb 2019

On January 25, Brazil suffered its most deadly dam collapse to date in the town Brumadinho, leaving over 150 dead and more than 7 kilometres of toxic mud in its wake. This, only three years after another large dam co-owned by the same company, Vale, collapsed and killed 19 people.

The dam, called Dam I of the Córrego do Feijão Mine, held iron ore mine tailings and had shown warning signs of potential collapse. An audit conducted only months prior revealed that it was at risk, though another inspection subsequently (and suspiciously) came out stating the dam’s safety.

There were a number of things Vale, the world’s largest iron ore producer, could have done to prevent such massive loss of life, including moving an employee cafeteria from the disaster’s path, or reporting the known risks to the board of directors. The tragedy has called into question Brazil’s enforcement of mining regulations and put a spotlight on dams of similar construction around the country, of which there are dozens.

The New York Times did an investigation and found that “Indeed, the structure at Brumadinho strained the very definition of ‘dam’. It had no separate concrete or metal wall to hold back its contents. Instead, the structure, known as an upstream tailings dam, relied on the lake of mud to remain solid enough to contain itself.” Liquefaction of the contents of the dam is assumed to be the main reason for its collapse. One miner who survived stated the widespread knowledge among employees that the contents behind the dam were liquefied. A man who died while eating at the canteen on the premises told his son, also a miner, only days prior that he was concerned that the dam could fail.

The dam that collapsed had been audited only months prior and, according to Reuters, “The report, dated Oct. 3, 2018, classified the dam at Brumadinho in the state of Minas Gerais as being two times more likely to fail than the maximum level of risk tolerated under internal guidelines.” Still, it was not reported to the CEO or top management, as procedure calls for with such a statistical risk.

Since the disaster, arrests have been made, of three Vale employees and two subcontracted engineers from the Brazilian arm of TÜV SÜD, the German company that provided stability reports for the dam. Recently, residents living downstream from other dams at risk have been evacuated, as a pre-emptive measure to prevent further potential loss of life. Many such structures have been built above towns of hundreds of residents, posing a serious risk in case of an emergency.

The problem with these safety inspections is that they are left up to the mining company; they do the hiring of the oversight company and provide them with the necessary information about the structure to complete the assessment – a potential conflict of interest. Since the dam that collapsed was deemed ‘safe’ only weeks prior in another report, the safety of other such dams has been called into question, as well as the whole method by which such structures are audited. There may have been pressure put on the engineers by Vale for the report to deem the dam safe, in order to maintain the business relationship.

Mining is one of those industries that national economies seem addicted to. It brings the natural resources that countries boast of having, out of the ground and makes them real, tangible. Many governments are willing to overlook the toxic chemical by-products that result from razing the landscape in order to access these most precious of resources, but one too many disasters and citizens become wary.

In Brazil, mining is a lucrative industry – the state where these mine waste dam disasters have occurred is called Minas Gerais, literally translating to “general mines.” And Brazil’s new President, Jair Bolsonaro, has been an outspoken critic of environmental regulations, which leaves many to worry whether this tragedy will be a wakeup call or if business, as usual, will continue, putting the thousands of residents who live downstream from these dams, at sustained risk.

Thousands of dams around the country have already been deemed “high risk” by inspectors. If the one that actually collapsed was marked as “safe,” then it’s clear Brazil has a long way to go if it wants to prevent another disaster. Yet, it might start with scrapping the idea that these ‘dams’ were ever safe, to begin with. The conditions of these structures are constantly changing, affected by myriad circumstances; the regulations and inspections should keep up – prioritizing resident and worker safety, rather than cost saving and corner cutting.

Sarah Sakeena Marshall, English Language Teacher & Environmental Columnist





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