MINING ACTIVITIES TAKE LIVES AGAIN IN BRAZIL

Photo: Fire Department

On January 25, Brazil witnessed another criminal catastrophe. One of the dams in the Mina do Feijão burst in Brumadinho (MG). In less than a minute, Vale S/A spilled 13 million square meters of rejects over the municipality. Three minutes later, the company cafeteria and offices were buried by the mud, as well as an inn, homes and all the vegetation of that part of the town.

To the present moment, 169 bodies have been found and 141 are still missing. This criminal disaster follows others of similar nature, some of which we highlight here: the burst of the Fundão dam in Mariana, MG (2015), the burst of an Anglo American ore pipeline in Minas Gerais (2018), and leaks in the Hydro-Alunorte reject dams in the state of Pará (2009, 2017).

The burst of the Brumadinho dam is now the worst disaster with human casualties in the history of mining in Brazil. If the missing persons are presumed dead — firefighters emphasized the impossibility of locating all the bodies — it will have been the mining disaster with the largest number of victims in the world.

Photo: Fire Department

Vale’s actions have claimed hundreds of lives and ruined life for hundreds of families in Brumadinho, a rural town that trusted that company and believed them when they affirmed that the dam was safe.

Few families have not lost a relative in that criminal disaster. The anguish to recover the bodies of dear ones grows as Brumadinho undergoes a collective mourning.

As days go by, the body count rises. Some families had the chance to provide a proper funeral for their beloved ones, whereas others wait amid the disclosure of despicable details of the tragedy.

Aerial view of the region affected by the rupture of the dam of the Córrego do Feijão mine in Brumadinho (MG) — 01/26/2019 (Andre Penner / AP)

On February 1, Globo TV broadcasted some footage of the burst and the flow of rejects that destroyed the mine. A security camera captured the exact moment when Dam 1 in the Córrego do Feijão Mine collapsed in Brumadinho, in the metropolitan area of Belo Horizonte. The footage had been provided by the mining company so that the authorities can investigate the episode.

It was 12h28min25s on Friday, January 25, when the lower part of the dam collapsed and released a devastating avalanche of mining rejects. In three minutes time, anything in the course of the mud had been swallowed by it, an area that stretched for miles. That “tsunami” quickly engulfed part of Vale’s offices and cafeteria, mining equipment, a train, a bridge, houses, inns and cattle enclosures. The local vegetation and rivers were deeply affected. The wave of mud caused a human tragedy.

Watch:

On February 6, journalist Andréa Sadi informed Globonews that email messages revealed that Vale was aware of sensor problems in Brumadinho two days before the burst. The exchange of messages was identified by the Federal Police. During his statement, an engineer claimed he felt pressured to attest to the safety of the dam.

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The question is: if Vale was aware of the risks of an imminent burst,

WHY DID NOT THEY ALERT THE CIVIL DEFENSE AND THE LOCAL POPULATION?

In order to answer this question and others that remain unanswered since the burst of the Fundão dam, in 2015, it is crucial to understand how the mining industry operates in Brazil. Unless there are changes to the model adopted by the sector, other tragedies related to mining activities will come to happen.

Mining Lobby

The promiscuous relationship between mining companies and the government is obscene. For decades, the mining industry has funded the campaigns of congressional representatives who later became a mining caucus, whose intent includes loose regulations and further possibilities for profit. The sector was also granted tax subsidies such as the Kandir Law, which exempts mining companies from paying ICMS over exported ore.

The mining lobby is powerful. After the victory of Jair Bolsonaro in the presidential elections of October 2018, the Brazilian Institute of Mining (Ibram) estimated that billions of dollars from private capital awaited for a positive signal to invest in mining projects in the country. “In fact, the feeling of legal uncertainty persists and the country has not fully opened its doors to foreign investments”, says Ibram, which represents mining industries in Brazil (including Vale).

Photo: Fire Department
Before the incident in Brumadinho, President Bolsonaro offered business opportunities in the mining sector during the Davos Economic Forum. He referred to IBAMA as “an industry of fines” and promised more flexibility in environmental licensing. A few days later, Brazilians watched in horror as hundreds of people drowned in mud due to another dam burst.
“Mining corporations have long been protected from taxes, regulations and inspections”, said Inesc’s political assistant in an article for the Nexo journal.

According to her, the lack of resources to inspect mining activities in Brazil reflect how the Brazilian government has been seized by the sector, mostly controlled by giants such as Vale. Cardoso affirms:

“the public budget is a result of political decisions that express not only the priorities determined by the government, but also, in some cases, non-explicit intentions. As for mining in Brazil, government interests are historically marked by the creation of surplus at any cost. To do so, the mining industry has always been protected: from taxes, regulation, inspection. Therefore, we were left with a low tax burden for the sector, outdated regulation (the Mining Code dates back to 1967) and a criminal inspection, as we can see”.

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Bruno Milanez, PhD in environmental policies from the Federal University of Juiz de Fora (UFJF), was interviewed by Folha de S. Paulo:

“We did not discuss whether there would be other bursts, but when they would happen”. In his opinion, the worldview of the mining sector caused them to ignore the seriousness of the alerts issued by the academia and the Public Prosecutor’s Office. “They truly believe that dams are safe. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t have built the company’s cafeteria so close to one”.
According to Milanez, the license issued in December for the expansion of works in Brumadinho evidences how licensing is already undergoing flexibilization, as a rehearsal for changes in the legislation. He also explained that, as ore prices go down, the first areas to suffer with cuts in funding are maintenance and monitoring. The specialist defends a greater participation of local communities in the decision-making about the use of the territory.
“The mining model adopted in Brazil is bad. And unnecessary”.

Read the full interview:

Similarly to the dam burst in Mariana, Vale tries to usurp rights from disaster victims in Brumadinho. On February 5, a meeting gathered more than 400 people, including representatives of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, Social Movements and Vale.
Photo: FolhaPress

The assembly was marked by shouting, tears, offenses and requests for police intervention. On the occasion, Vale representatives refused to meet the demands of one of the communities most affected by the mud in Brumadinho (MG).

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DESPAIR AND ANXIETY IN OTHER TOWNS NEAR DAMS

Minas Gerais has 28 dams whose stability has not been attested. Nine of them belong to Vale. The responsible departments have not presented documents with technical information about the status of those structures.

In 2017, newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo published an official list of the 699 dams in the state of Minas Gerais, and 28 of them did not have the stability attested by the auditor or had not presented technical documents or information to prove their stability. Nine of them belong to Vale. One of the cases stands out: the rural town of Nazareno, in the south of Minas Gerais. In that municipality, five dams kept by Vale Manganês have not had their stability attested since 2012. Both dams that burst in Brumadinho and Mariana had their supposed stability attested by auditors.
“In my analysis, all of them pose a risk, because there is a clear conflict of interest in this self-inspection”, says the coordinator of the Center of Politics, Economics, Mining, Environment and Society at the Federal University of Juiz de Fora (UFJF), Bruno Milanez.

He carried out an assessment about the repeated incidents with dams.

“However, what can we say about those dams whose own auditors does not attest to their stability?”

Read the article:

Residents of two mining cities leave homes at risk of dam rupture

Inhabitants of rural towns of Barão de Cocais e Itatiaiuçu to leave their homes after detection of imminent risk in local dams on Friday (8).

Mine in the Valley in Barão de Cocais
The emergency plan was put into action by the National Mining Agency and the alarm was set off to warn the population of Barão de Cocais. In Itatiaiuçu, the alarm was not activated. The Civil defense joint coordinator, Colonel Flávio Godinho is at the Serra Azul mine and confirmed the risk of burst. “We set off the alarm during the night, but we also knock on every door to evacuate the town. We identified a security situation level 2, and we chose to take action and save the lives of the miners”, said Godinho on a note published by the state government.

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As Vale’s stock prices have plummeted since the episode and shareholders have already begun to sue the company in other countries, we hope that the deaths of hundreds of people in Brumadinho were not in vain, and that there are significant changes to mining in Brazil.

By Kátia Visentainer
Pad — Process of Articulation and International Dialogue