Effects of Brumadinho disaster all too present two years on

. Jan 27, 2021
environment disaster vale mining brumadinho "It's not mud, it's toxic waste," reads a sign during rally for the Brumadinho victims. Photo: Rodrigo S Coelho

At 12:58 on January 25, 2019, a tailings dam collapsed outside the southeastern Brazilian town of Brumadinho, releasing a deluge of toxic sludge that destroyed surrounding villages and killed 270 people, among them employees of the Córrego do Feijão iron ore mine, owned by mining giant Vale.

Two years on, the bodies of 11 victims are still missing. Search operations have taken up over 6,000 hours of work by almost 4,000 military personnel. The last time bodies were encountered was December 28, 2019. Searches stopped in March due to the pandemic, but continued on August 27.

Meanwhile, the survivors have been left unassisted, still dealing with the trauma of the disaster and seeking reparations. This week, the State Environmental and Social Protection Association (Aedas) published a 365-page dossier of “emergency reparation measures” after consulting 3,823 people in Brumadinho.

</p> <p>The document highlights the main damage suffered, how the affected population wishes to be compensated, and how they may take part in decisions. Among other demands, they want increased transparency with regard to the safety of remaining dams, the toxic and ecological conditions of the Paraopeba River — <a href="">left all but completely dead</a> due to the mud released by the dam failure — and the interruptions and quality of water distributed to the surrounding communities.</p> <p>At the same times, they demand the right to housing for those who lost their homes in the disaster, the receipt and maintenance of public health infrastructure, social welfare, sanitation, education, food safety, employment, culture, and leisure for the communities affected by the catastrophe two years ago.</p> <p>Among the Brumadinho residents consulted by Aedas, 54.7 percent are not currently in paid employment. Almost 20 percent receive wealth transfer programs and social benefits; 47 percent of this group are part of Brazil&#8217;s Bolsa Família welfare initiative.</p> <p>Only 45 percent have access to a formal supply of potable water. Thirty-four percent use artesian wells, 15 percent get their water from natural springs, while 6 percent still rely on water trucks. Two-thirds of those who do have normal water supplies report interruptions to the service throughout the week, and 62 percent are unconvinced of its safety.</p> <h2>Dam failure caused water fears in surrounding communities</h2> <p>The problem, indeed, extends beyond the small town of Brumadinho. After the dam failure, the so-called Paraopeba System was suspended. Set up in 2015 to solve issues of water rationing in Greater Belo Horizonte — of which Brumadinho is a part — the system soon accounted for 43 percent of the water supply of the entire region. A <a href=";date_range=all&amp;from=&amp;to=&amp;type=all&amp;section=all">court order forced Vale</a> to build a new water collection station to avoid future crises, but works on the new facility are only set to be completed in February.</p> <p>According to the Minas Gerais Water Management Institute (Igam), the stretch of the Paraopeba River located between Brumadinho and the town of Pompéu is completely unsuitable for consumption or agricultural use. Since then, the supply and distribution of drinking water has been the responsibility of Vale, in accordance with court orders.</p> <p>Several communities became dependant on water trucks provided by Vale. According to the mining firm, 55 such vehicles travel a combined 11,000 kilometers every day to take water to riverside communities.</p> <h2>Some Brumadinho victims remain homeless</h2> <p>There is also a severe housing problem. Since the disaster in 2019, 446 families are still without a home. However, victims of the tragedy have been able to receive compensation three times faster than those of the <a href="">Mariana dam collapse</a> in 2015, just 80 kilometers away.</p> <p>In the case of that catastrophe, where another tailings dam owned by Vale subsidiary <a href="">Samarco</a> burst and left 19 people dead and untold environmental damage, some 432 people lost their homes in the deluge of toxic sludge.</p> <p>In 2019, Vale finalized an average of 2.3 compensation agreements per day with the victims of the Brumadinho disaster, rising to a daily average of 8.4 last year. A total of 3,800 civil and labor agreements have been signed since the Mariana dam collapse, an average of just 2.6 per day after reparation efforts began in 2017.</p> <h2>TÜV SÜD faces class action</h2> <p>Vale&#8217;s tailings dam in Brumadinho suffered a catastrophic failure just four months after being certified as safe by German industrial auditor TÜV SÜD. The firm is now facing legal action for &#8220;significant damages&#8221; in the first case on the disaster on German soil.</p> <p>A group of victims alleges that TÜV SÜD was responsible for erroneously certifying the safety of the dam due to fears of losing Vale — the world&#8217;s largest iron ore producer — as a client. The class action claims that the company adjusted security standards in the case of the Brumadinho dam, making it easier to certify the structure as safe.</p> <p>The case is being led by law firm <a href=";utm_medium=release&amp;utm_campaign=mariana&amp;utm_content=jurisdictiondecision">PGMBM</a>, <a href="">which also filed a class action against BHP Billiton in the United Kingdom</a> due to the Mariana tragedy. The firm says it is launching the legal battle in Germany as the Brazilian court system is slow and inefficient.&nbsp;</p> <p>Last year, German courts proposed arbitration, which was rejected by TÜV SÜD lawyers in October 2020. The case will now proceed in the District Court of Munich. Speaking to <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>, one representative of PGMBM said that the office will request no less than USD 400 million in damages.</p> <p>In a statement, TÜV SÜD said it remains convinced that it was not liable for the dam failure. It said that it continues to think of the victims of the disaster and that it is committed to clarifying the cause of the incident in cooperation with Brazilian authorities.

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Renato Alves

Renato Alves is a Brazilian journalist who has worked for Correio Braziliense and Crusoé.

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