On November 5, a dam containing a waste-water reservoir used by Brazilian mining company Samarco was breached, sending red mud through the nearby village of Bento Rodrigues and down the bed of the Rio Doce in the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil. The water contained residual chemicals from iron ore mining processes. The cause of the dam failure has yet to be determined. Samarco is owned by “mining giants” Vale and BHP Billiton, Brazilian and “Anglo-Australian” companies respectively.

The burst dam sent a torrent of mud, water, and chemicals towards down river towns. (Antonio Cruz/Agência Brasil)

The 600 or so residents of Bento Rodrigues had no warning that the dam had broken, sending a torrent of “viscous, clay-red mud” towards them. Residents heard the dam burst, and began to head for higher ground.

Eleven were killed, with twelve more still missing, presumed dead. 631 people in Bento Rodrigues lost their homes, and the water source for hundreds of thousands of people downstream has been contaminated. Some 200 miles away from the mine, the river is bright orange with mining waste.

There has been criticism of the government’s response to the disaster, stemming from the “slow” response time of the government and the potentially lax regulation of mining companies. Additionally, Sandra Cureau, a federal prosecutor in Brazil’s attorney general’s office, has said that “there seems to have been total indifference among all parties about the plight of the victims in this disaster.” Brazilian federal emergency teams were not deployed; most of the rescue work in the following two days after the event was done by local volunteers.

Samarco has reported that two more dams used “to hold waste water from iron production” are at risk of failure, prompting emergency work on the structures to prevent another breach. The company has agreed to pay the Brazilian government $260 million in compensation, and their mining license has been suspended. However, these retributive actions may not be welcomed by all parties affected: the mayor of Mariana, the municipality where the mine is located, called on regulators to refrain from shutting down the mine, considering that mining revenue constitutes “around 80% of the city’s annual budget.”

Sources and Further Readings:

1. Brazil mining company Samarco suspended over dams burst – BBC
2. Brazil Dam Burst: Mud Advances and Provokes Fish Kill in Minas Gerais – Fohla De S.Paulo
3. Another two Brazil dams ‘at risk of collapsing’ – BBC
4. Brazil rescuers search for 19 missing after dams burst – The Washington Post
5. Negligence likely behind Brazil dam bursts, prosecutor says – The Washington Post
6. Anger Grows in Brazil After Dam Failures – The Wall Street Journal
7. Brazil dam bursts: Mining company Samarco to pay compensation – BBC