Mining communities still hurting in aftermath of Brazil dam collapse

As the world focuses on the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, elsewhere in Brazil, mining communities are struggling to cope with the economic and social fall-out from the country’s worst environmental disaster nine months ago.

Uncertainty remains over jobs, homes and the future for communities in the Minas Gerais region in southeastern Brazil, after a tragic tailings dam collapse at a Samarco Mineração SA iron ore mine last year.

The troubled company – which is a joint venture of mining multinationals BHP-Billiton and Vale – announced plans to cut its workforce by 40 per cent and, despite a recent financial rescue package, doubt remains over its ongoing operations, workers housing and the future for the region so reliant on mining revenue.

On 5 November 2015 the Fundão tailings dam and the Santarém water dam at Samarco’s operations suffered catastrophic failure. The resulting flood of iron-rich mud killed 19 people, wiped out several towns and left 700 homeless, sparking anger across Brazil and internationally.

About 2.8 million cubic metres of muddy tailings containing heavy metals such as arsenic, lead and mercury polluted hundreds of kilometres of rivers in the Minas Gerais and Espirito Santo states. Toxic brown mud flows then swept downstream to the Atlantic Ocean, forcing beach closures along the coast.

Earlier this year, leaked internal documents revealed that Samarco had been warned about the possibility of dam collapses, the Wall Street Journal reported, after severe structural problems including cracks were spotted.

Samarco and its owners, Anglo-Australian BHP and Brazilian giant Vale, now face multiple legal battles over compensation and clean up.

Last month Brazil’s federal prosecutors launched an investigation into alleged environmental crimes by Samarco chief executive Roberto Carvalho, Reuters reported. Prosecutors alleged Samarco failed to fully implement emergency precautionary measures ordered by Brazil’s environmental protection agency Ibama.

Meanwhile local Brazilian media reported that police in the state of Minas Gerais have recommended qualified homicide charges be laid against six Samarco executives and one subcontractor.

Multi-billion dollar lawsuit

Earlier this year BHP and Vale agreed with the Brazilian government to an environmental and economic compensation deal, but a court later suspended it, reopening the possibility for a US$6.2 billion public lawsuit for damages. Additionally, Brazilian prosecutors filed a US$44 billion civil law suit for social, environmental and economic compensation in May.

After both initially failing to provide financial assistance to Samarco, BHP and Vale recently announced a rescue package for the struggling operations, which have been halted since the catastrophe. This followed a recent BHP statement suggesting operations would not be restarted this year with job cuts imminent.

“Samarco makes an important contribution to the national economy and the livelihoods of thousands of people but Samarco’s operations will restart only when it is safe to do so, and when all regulatory approvals are granted and accepted by the relevant authorities and communities, the statement read.

But campaigners argue that given Minas Gerais has historically depended on mining revenue from the once highly profitable Samarco mines, the multinationals must do more for the region.

Director of health, safety and sustainability from global union IndustriALL, Brian Kohler, said BHP and Vale had failed mine workers and their communities.

“This catastrophe illustrates the persistent failure of mining companies to exercise their duty to care for their workers, the environment, and the people who rely on them,” Kohler said.

“People died, property was destroyed, ecosystems suffered incalculable damage, and to add insult to injury, workers lost their jobs. Mining companies can do better, they must.”

Climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace Brazil, Fabiana Alves questioned the way compensation and damages were being decided, given more than 260 displaced families were still living in houses rented by Samarco.

Local media have previously reported that more than half of the politicians sitting on parliamentary committees tasked with investigating the role of BHP and Vale in the disaster received more than US$800 million in political donations from companies connected to Vale.

“The agreement with the federal and state governments of Minas Gerais had no participation from the affected people and mayors of the cities affected,” Alves said.

“The agreement was suspended by the Federal Court of Justice but there is no final decision about ending it. Movements and non-government organisations are now trying to fight against this agreement and are asking for the participation of civil society in a new one.”