A year on, Brazil­ian mine tragedy wounds still raw

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH & SCIENCE -

BENTO RO­DRIGUES, Brazil: In the rav­aged Brazil­ian val­ley where a gi­ant min­ing waste dam burst, killing 19 peo­ple and spew­ing pol­lu­tion, an in­con­gru­ous sight pops up: bill­boards with a grin­ning work­man and the slo­gan “com­mu­ni­cate pos­i­tively”. The boards stand in swirling dust raised by dig­gers and trucks re­pair­ing the dam­aged net­work of dams and dikes at the site of what’s been called Brazil’s worst en­vi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ter.

But 12 months since the tragedy at the Sa­marco iron ore mine - which be­longs to two of the world’s wealth­i­est min­ing com­pa­nies Vale and BHP-Bil­li­ton - there is lit­tle pos­i­tive to com­mu­ni­cate. The sud­den dam break on Nov 5, 2015 un­leashed 32 mil­lion cu m of min­eral waste - a mov­ing wall of red sludge big enough to fill 11 Dal­las Cow­boys sta­di­ums and, ac­cord­ing to the UN, con­tain­ing dan­ger­ous con­tam­i­nants.

The flood tore about 640 km down the River Doce, killing mine work­ers and in­hab­i­tants of the nearby vil­lage Bento Ro­drigues, and strip­ping thou­sands of their homes or jobs. Sa­marco, lo­cated near the his­toric town of Mar­i­ana in Brazil’s met­als-rich Mi­nas Gerais state, in­sists it is do­ing ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble to draw a line un­der what it calls a tragic ac­ci­dent, deny­ing that the spill was even toxic. Vic­tims and Brazil­ian pros­e­cu­tors - who have filed man­slaugh­ter charges against 21 ex­ec­u­tives, as well as bil­lions of dol­lars in dam­ages claims - tell an­other story.

Where are the Houses?

Sa­marco’s high­est pro­file com­mit­ment is to build new vil­lages for the peo­ple of Bento Ro­drigues and Para­catu, a se­cond ru­ral com­mu­nity wiped out in the mud­slide, al­though no one was killed there. To date, not a sin­gle brick has been laid. In fact, the sole phys­i­cal sign of progress is a metal plaque read­ing “Novo Bento” in the mid­dle of a for­est that will be­come a build­ing site but which for now is home only to trop­i­cal but­ter­flies, birds and ter­mite hills.

“A whole year and noth­ing has hap­pened. They’ve done noth­ing apart from buy­ing the land,” an an­gry dis­placed vil­lager, An­to­nio Ger­aldo San­tos, 33, said last week after a meet­ing with for­mer neigh­bors at a hall in Mar­i­ana. BHP, the world’s big­gest min­ing com­pany, and Vale, the world’s big­gest iron ore miner, say they and Sa­marco are com­mit­ted to re­pair­ing the dam­aged com­mu­ni­ties, mine in­fra­struc­ture and en­vi­ron­ment.

Al­varo Pereira from the Ren­ova Foun­da­tion, a body set up to co­or­di­nate aid, said 8,000 fam­i­lies along the River Doce are re­ceiv­ing emer­gency com­pen­sa­tion. Many of these re­lied on fish­ing or tourism where the Rio Doce en­ters the At­lantic Ocean and have lost in­come. But the worst hit live near the dam and had only min­utes to run for their lives when it broke, los­ing ev­ery­thing from cars to fam­ily pho­tos.

Just in Bento Ro­drigues there were 236 fam­i­lies forced to flee, Ren­ova says. An­other 108 fam­i­lies were dis­placed in Para­catu. Pereira de­scribes a “gi­gan­tic sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity” and at­tributes re­build­ing de­lays to in­ten­sive con­sul­ta­tions with vil­lagers and au­thor­i­ties. “Many ques­tion why it hasn’t started yet,” he said dur­ing a me­dia tour where Sa­marco pub­lic af­fairs of­fi­cers mon­i­tored ev­ery word said by em­ploy­ees to jour­nal­ists. “But there is a lot of work that you don’t see.” Con­struc­tion will be com­plete by early 2019, he said.

Jus­tice and Jobs

By con­trast, fran­tic work has gone into re­build­ing a dam that holds back an even big­ger waste reser­voir after be­ing badly dam­aged dur­ing the ac­ci­dent last year. “We are work­ing 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” the head of the project, Ed­uardo Mor­eira, told jour­nal­ists dur­ing the tour. Huge trucks, earth movers and pla­toons of men in or­ange work jack­ets and hard hats dug and pushed earth and rocks to shore up the dam, cen­ter­piece of a vast bar­ren area gouged by Sa­marco from the green hills. Smaller dikes were be­ing built lower down to en­sure that waste left over from last year’s bro­ken dam doesn’t go any fur­ther.

Asked if an­other dam could burst, Mor­eira said: “It’s vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble.” Sa­marco and its multi­na­tional own­ers face a bar­rage of law­suits, with pros­e­cu­tors no­tably de­mand­ing 155 bil­lion reais ($49 bil­lion) in dam­ages, not to men­tion po­ten­tially lengthy prison sen­tences for the 21 ex­ec­u­tives and em­ploy­ees ac­cused of qual­i­fied homi­cide. Mi­nas Gerais state pros­e­cu­tor Guil­herme de Sa Meneghin ac­cuses Sa­marco of “us­ing de­lay­ing tricks” at ev­ery step of com­pen­sa­tion. “They only meet their obli­ga­tions after be­ing forced to in court,” he told AFP.

Yet de­spite this widely shared fury, vic­tims want Sa­marco - par­a­lyzed since the dis­as­ter - back in ac­tion. Sa­marco em­ployed 3,000 staff, about 1,000 of whom are now out of work. There were also 3,000 con­trac­tors and “many” have been laid off, a spokesman said. “It re­ally is a com­plex sit­u­a­tion given that min­ing is the chief ac­tiv­ity of Mi­nas Gerais. The re­la­tion­ship with min­ing is very strong, so they want Sa­marco to re­open,” Meneghin said. “But they don’t want them to be let off or to es­cape re­spon­si­bil­ity.” —AFP

BENTO RO­DRIGUES, Brazil: View of Bento Ro­drigues vil­lage, ru­ined by the flood fol­low­ing the deadly col­lapse of the Sa­marco iron-ore mine dam last year, in Mar­i­ana of Mi­nas Gerais State, on Oct 26, 2016. —AFP

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