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In Brazil, these dams are weak links in the mining industry

The mermaids tore at dawn on Sunday, January 27 in Brumadinho, causing panic in the city of "ferrous quadrilateral" Minas Gerais, located just 60 kilometers from the capital of the state of southeastern Brazil. Two days ago, after the break-up of a tailings dam owned by Brazilian multinational Vale, among the world's five largest iron ore producers, the region was partially buried under a 12.7 million-meter flow.3 industrial waste.

Once is not custom, Sunday morning: Vale alerted the inhabitants of the risk "imminent" breaking of a second of these dams where it stores its discharges. The rescue teams had to stop their search, before taking them back once the risk was removed in the afternoon. The provisional balance sheet is 37 dead and more than 250 missing. The chances of finding survivors are minimal. As for the impact on the environment and health, it is still difficult to measure.

"Talking about" mud "to describe the magma that has spilled over the region does not reflect its real toxicity", alerted GloboNews to environmental journalist André Trigueiro, citing a risk of contamination of the São Francisco, a long river that runs from Minas Gerais and feeds to the Northeast. "It's not an accident, it's a crime," echoes the ecologist Marina Silva, former Minister of the Environment. "It's inexcusable," acknowledged Vale CEO Fabio Schvartsman.

The precedent of 2015

This flagship of the Brazilian economy, which devotes millions to try to convince of its supposed "Social and environmental responsibility", is a recidivist. On November 5, 2015, its dam in Mariana, in the same region, gave way. An ecological disaster without precedent in the country, even in the global mining industry. The dam belonged to Samarco, controlled by Vale and the Australian BHP Billiton. Its 39 million m3 mud – "nontoxic", even today, Samarco – spilled over 650 kilometers, killing nineteen people and destroying houses, fields and ecosystems, before flowing into the Atlantic …

The lawsuits against Vale, BHP and Samarco have not been successful. Nothing has been done either to guarantee the safety of industrial waste dams, despite pressure from NGOs. Today, the dams of these companies (790 in all the country) are too close to inhabited areas. This is the case in Minas Gerais, an iron-rich state where, because of the strong presence of mining activity, there are more than half of them.

For experts, this storage system, which consists of stacking the waste, is obsolete. But the more modern technologies are more expensive … The industry would not even bother to control the stability of these moving mountains of residues. When she does not close her eyes on the faults. "A company like Vale has to honor contracts made in advance. So someone comes and says, "We can not stop production, we have to deliver iron ore", comments Maurício Ehrlich, professor of geotechnical engineering.

24,000 dams for 154 controllers

"Mining companies continue to do what they want, adds Carlos Barreira Martinez, professor of water engineering. The state lets it go. " The surveillance of the 24,000 dams of all types identified in the country – of which only less than 60% are authorized to operate – is the responsibility of a staff of only 154 controllers. Even the Workers Party (PT), which ruled Brazil for thirteen years (2003-2016), promised to "civilize capitalism", nothing changed.

Until the end of 2018, the state of Minas Gerais was governed by a PT executive, Fernando Pimentel. And it was his environment secretary who downgraded Brumadinho's risk assessment from "high" to "low".

The tragedy comes against the deleterious designs of the new Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro (far right), who spoke about accelerating the procedures for granting permits for large projects by environmental authorities, too tedious to his liking. In mid-January, Ricardo Salles, his Minister of the Environment – a portfolio saved in extremis of outright abolition – even envisaged the establishment of a device allowing companies to self-declare their works in accordance with the laws.

Chantal Rayes Correspondent in São Paulo

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