After Mariana and Brumadinho, mining remains unsafe in Brazil

. Mar 10, 2020
mining brazil vale Vale's Gongo Soco tailings dam. Photo: Globocop

This week, Brazilian mining giant Vale reported that its Gongo Soco tailings mine in Minas Gerais continues to erode—a process that began last year and has put the structure at risk of collapse.

In February last year, the National Mining Agency (ANM) ordered the removal of 500 people from the municipality of Barão de Cocais due to risks associated with the dam. The mining complex of Gongo Soco is about 120 kilometers away from the town of Brumadinho, where another of Vale’s tailings dams burst on January 25, killing 270 people.

The case of Gongo Soco is a testament to how the safety of Brazil’s mining sector remains subpar, according to Julio Delgado, a member of Congress who chaired a parliamentary hearings committee into the Brumadinho disaster. In July 2019, the committee requested that former Vale president Fabio Schvartsman be indicted for murder, along with 13 other people.

He spoke with The Brazilian Report about what needs to be done to make sure disasters such as Mariana and Brumadinho don’t happen again.

Disclaimer: this interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

In the wake of these tragedies, have mining companies become more aware of safety measures?


after Mariana, because people thought it was a one-off. This was down to our negligence, we should have adopted the same attitudes as we did after Brumadinho. If we had, we would not necessarily have prevented Brumadinho, but its effects would have been much less. For instance, the mine&#8217;s cafeteria and administrative center would not be located below the dam.</p><p>Companies saw a possibility of recurrence after Brumadinho. The mineral extraction model in Brazil was very obsolete and outdated. Now, we have mining companies following more modern methods, using dry dams, for example. This is a result of all the investigations held after the tragedies.</p></blockquote> <p><strong>Almost half of Brazil&#8217;s dams are not listed in the National Dam Safety Plan. What does this mean in practice?</strong></p> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p>This number shows an increase in records. Before Brumadinho, only 15 percent of the dams were on the security plan. And most of them were at risk. In Minas Gerais, for example, only 85 of the 473 dams in the state were actually being inspected.</p><p>We only have three employees to inspect all the dams, and these inspections take place when a mining company requests it.&nbsp;</p></blockquote> <p><strong>One of the claims of the sector is that external auditors are afraid to attest to the security of dams after Brumadinho, with the worry that they would be held responsible for future tragedies. How can we solve this?</strong></p> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p>New forms of inspection, observation, and maintenance of dams are needed. It is a fact that dams exist and are at risk, especially when it rains a lot. External audits mustn&#8217;t be contracted by the mining company itself, but by the National Mining Agency.</p><p>There is a bill in Congress that provides for a payment to the ANM for this contract to be made. What cannot happen is what occurred with Vale, which hired an external audit and pressured them for a favorable report.</p></blockquote> <p><strong>Another criticism from the sector is the increase to the proposed tax to fund inspections. Is raising tax the only way to increase enforcement?</strong></p> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p>Increasing tax is a means of sustaining the inspection system. We propose the creation of a fund that would be paid into by all mining companies and used to pay for inspections and help in case of further disruptions. This fund will help many municipalities that have no money for these situations. After the Brumadinho disaster, the company that committed the crime helped in the first aid.</p><p>If this model does not work, we may collect tax on the exploration of mineral resources. Currently, mining companies only pay state governments and the ANM in order to operate. This is not enough. If we continue like this, they will not be valued, even when the dam breaks.</p></blockquote> <p><strong>Is the mining sector safer after the Brumadinho tragedy?</strong></p> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p>I cannot guarantee that it has gotten safer, but it is trying to be more reliable. Mining companies are more attentive. Many projects have been presented that adopt this improvement. These proposals increase security by giving Civil Defense more freedom and by centralizing the environmental licensing processes within the Brazilian Environmental Protection Agency (Ibama).</p></blockquote> <p><strong>Some companies have come up against issues obtaining environmental licenses and mining permits, could these two processes be merged into one?</strong></p> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p>Yes, as long as it is by volume and not by region. For example, to extract sand from a river, you need Ibama&#8217;s permission. This means that someone taking 50 cubic meters of iron in Minas Gerais will only go to the state government, Ibama doesn&#8217;t even get consulted. What we want is to increase this oversight by way of other agencies. Nothing against state governments, but federal licensing is necessary due to the volume extracted.</p><p>It is complicated for small businesses to obtain a license from Ibama, but large companies find it easier. Imagine if we reduce the rules, removing the participation of prosecutors, for example, and the request will be granted in two hours.

Brenno Grillo

Correspondent in Brasília. Journalist since 2012, is especialized in cover Law and Justice. Worked in comunication agencies untill be choosen to be an intern in O Estado de S.Paulo. Also worked in Portal Brasil and political campaigns. His last job was in ConJur, website especialized in Justice news.

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